Supervisors, in Service of Their Subordinates or the Other Way Around?

There are two approaches when it comes to the working relationship between a supervisor and their subordinates.

The First Approach

According to the first approach, supervisors are there to facilitate the best performance of their subordinates. The supervisors aren’t expected to do the job, but they are expected to guide, lead, and evaluate the work of their subordinates.

A supervisor who is working on a job that they can delegate to their subordinates is actually wasting their time. They are not only wasting their time, but they are also getting less performance out of their subordinates who may perform better if they are guided by the supervisor.

In this approach, the subordinates won’t be able to receive much guidance from the supervisor, because the supervisor is busy with a job that they can delegate to one of the subordinates.

Sure, the supervisor might be more efficient on completing the task by themselves. However, they are not only responsible for their own output. They are responsible for the output of their entire team. By focusing on maximizing the productivity of the entire team, the supervisor can create greater output compared to just focusing on their own productivity.

The Math

Let’s do the math. Suppose that a supervisor has five subordinates. The supervisor can produce 100 units of value per time unit. A subordinate can produce 50 units of value per time unit without the guidance of the supervisor. The same subordinate can produce 80 units of value per time unit with the guidance of the supervisor.

If the supervisor allocates all of their time on guiding their subordinates, they will produce no value by themselves, but their team will produce 5 x 80 = 400 units of value per time unit.

If the supervisor allocates no time on guiding the subordinates, they will produce 100 units of value by themselves and their subordinates 5 x 50 = 250 units of value. In total, this amounts to 350 units of value per time unit for the team.

In this example, it was more productive for the supervisor to not do the job themselves but to allocate all of their time to guiding their subordinates.

The Reality

Of course the number of subordinates a supervisor has, their productivity, and the guided and unguided productivity of the subordinates are not always the same in each situation.

In some teams and situations, that calculation will favor the supervisor not guiding their team at all. In other situations, it will favor the supervisor spending their whole time on guiding their team. Yet in other situations, the optimal solution might be somewhere between these two extremes.

I’m convinced that the supervisor not guiding their team at all is not the optimum solution, but again this depends on the team and situation. There might be exceptional cases, where this might be optimal.

To which extend should the supervisor commit their time to guiding their subordinates?

100% might be impossible, because the supervisor has other duties as well. But should it be closer to 100% or closer 0%? Or somewhere in between? My hunch used to be closer to 100%.

I was happy to learn that Gary Vaynerchuk, a successful American entrepreneur, also thought in the same direction as me, as far as I could understand from his book, #AskGaryVee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media, and Self-Awareness.

Then I read the article Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? By William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass in the book HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself. This article advocated an approach that is closer to 0% of the supervisor’s time allocated to guiding their subordinates.

It was a good article and I started to apply the ideas in this book in my working days to the extent possible. I must say that this article made a difference in how I approach my working relationships with my colleagues.

Empirical Results

After experiencing both approaches, I must say that both approaches have their merits. Intuitively, the first approach seems to be the better one to me. It makes more sense. However, I must admit that every team and every situation is different.

What works on one team wouldn’t work in another team and the other way around. Supervisors and teams need to find their own balance. They need to find which approach works best for them.

If a supervisor can extract more productivity from their team by sacrificing their own productivity and guiding their subordinates, they should do that. If that guidance doesn’t result in extra productivity to the extent that it justifies the productivity sacrificed by the supervisor, they shouldn’t do it.

Bottom Line

The bottom line of this post is not to argue that one approach is better than the other. The bottom line of this post is to point out that the percentage of time that a supervisor allocates to guiding their subordinates is a variable that a supervisor can optimize in order to maximize the overall productivity of their team.

In order to do that, the supervisor needs to let go of their preconceived notions of what is the right thing to do and approach this problem as a variable that can be optimized. Flexibility and open-mindedness is the key qualities here.

Your Turn

What’s your take on this subject? Which approach works best for you? Are you ready to experiment with the opposite approach or would you rather stick with your current approach?

Burak Bilgin
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.