Supervisor vs. Manager: What is the Key Difference?

It may not be as much of a mystery as “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” but debating the differences between the definition of “supervisor” and the definition of “manager” can generate as much, if not more, discussion!

Here we take a look at the similarities—and very important differences—between the two roles to help provide clarity and understanding. 

Understanding the differences can help you better staff your organization to achieve results by selecting the right individuals for each role and providing them with the training and experiences they need to excel in these roles.

What is a Supervisor? 

A supervisor is someone who leads a group of employees to achieve some desired result. Often, they work with employees but serve in a higher-level role that provides guidance, direction, and feedback. 

Supervisors are usually not decision-makers. Rather they can be thought of as coaches or guides. Their role is to lead the team to successfully achieve day-to-day results.

Typical activities of supervisors may include:

  • Creating goals.
  • Setting deadlines.
  • Overseeing workflow.
  • Training employees to perform their tasks.
  • Monitoring and preparing performance reports.
  • Responding to employee and customer inquiries and complaints—elevating them, as necessary, to managers.

Supervisors serve in an important role to coordinate the activities of employees to help ensure that they achieve the objectives of the team. They do this through the guidance and direction of managers.

quote on supervisors role versus managers role

What is a Manager? 

A manager is at a higher level in an organization than a supervisor. While supervisors are focused on helping to ensure that the team’s work gets done on time, effectively, and in accordance with quality requirements. Managers are focused on what needs to get done.

As the title suggests, managers manage. 

  • Managers are responsible for making decisions about what needs to be done, when, and by whom. 
  • They establish the appropriate structure to ensure that work is done in the most efficient and productive way. 
  • They make decisions about what needs to be done in order to achieve organizational objectives. 

Managers serve as an important communication conduit between other departments and, often, between key external resources like vendors, customers, and business partners.

How They are Similar 

Supervisors and managers are similar in that both positions are responsible for leading others and motivating teams to accomplish goals and objectives. 

They both delegate tasks to subordinates and are responsible for planning team activities to achieve goals. Both roles are also at a higher level than frontline employees and, therefore, receive high pay for their more challenging responsibilities.

There are some important differences between the two roles, however.  

How They are Different  

Managers are at a higher level in the organization than supervisors. There are some distinct differences between the two roles.

Authority Level

Managers have a higher level of authority than supervisors. They are charged with making decisions about what needs to be done to meet organizational goals, for establishing high-level expectations, and ensuring that supervisors and their departments meet those expectations. 

Supervisors’ decision-making authority is limited to directing the work of employees to achieve the goals as established by their managers.


Supervisors are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day tasks and activities of employees, but managers set the expectations and desired outcomes for those activities. 

Managers are responsible for the overall management of resources including employees and budget—they decide how those resources are to be used. 

Supervisors follow the manager’s directions and are responsible for ensuring that employees are productive and effective in achieving their goals.


Because of their higher level of authority and responsibility managers may receive a higher salary than supervisors. Supervisors, based on their performance, may be promoted into manager-level roles which would be considered a promotion.


Managers establish the objectives required to meet organizational goals and communicate those objectives, and related expectations, to supervisors. 

Supervisors are charged with carrying out and overseeing the work of employees to meet these objectives.

Top Skills for Supervisors 

list of top skills for managers versus supervisors

Supervisors develop a number of skills to help them effectively lead their teams to success. Supervisor training should cover basic skills like:

  • Communication. Supervisors need to be able to provide direction and explanation of the tasks employees need to do and how to do them. They need to be able to offer feedback, coaching, and course correction, as necessary, in a manner that is easy to understand.
  • Conflict resolution. Working with a team of people often involves conflict. Supervisors need to be adept at managing and resolving conflict to minimize its impact on productivity and goal attainment.
  • Leadership. Supervisors are leaders, albeit at a different level than managers. As they work with their team members they need to establish trust and cultivate engagement and commitment to get the work done.
  • Critical thinking. Supervisors need to think critically on a daily basis as they work with their team members to get things done. This may mean thinking about new ways to approach a task that might be more effective and productive, or how to come up with resolutions to any issue or roadblocks that may emerge.

Top Skills for Managers  

Managers need the same skills as supervisors, but in addition to those basic skills, managers also need higher-level skills required to exercise more authority and decision-making responsibility. Manager training programs will cover higher-level skills like:

  • Teamwork. Managers oversee the work of various areas of an organization that need to collaborate and cooperate to achieve organizational goals. They achieve excellence through high-performing teams.
  • Accountability and taking ownership. Managers must take ownership of the responsibility to achieve goals and objectives and hold themselves and others accountable to accomplish tasks productively, efficiently, and with a high level of quality.
  • Attention to detail. Managers are responsible for a wide range of activities that they will accomplish through others. Attention to detail is required to ensure that work is performed to expectations, that employees are productive and that operations are as efficient and effective as possible.
  • Problem-solving. Managers must spot and remove roadblocks to getting things done, working with others to improve team productivity.
  • Operational expertise. While managers are not tasked with doing the work, they must understand how the work is done.
  • Time and priority management. Managers are responsible for effectively and productively managing resources—both employee time and money. Their ability to do this well drives revenue directly to the bottom line.

In many cases, supervisors and managers enter their roles without prior training or experience. That’s why it’s so important for companies to have a training program and process in place to ensure that new managers—and even experienced managers—are receiving the training, and opportunity for practical application, they need to fulfill the requirements of their roles.

Supervisors and managers are foundational to effective company performance. Ensuring that they have the right skills and competencies, and that they know how to apply them, will help your organization succeed.

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Categories: Management, Promoting Employees, Supervisory
Scott Ulberg, Founder and President, Business Training Experts

Author: Scott Ulberg, Founder and President, Business Training Experts

Scott Ulberg is a leadership training expert. He’s dedicated over 20 years to turning supervisors and managers into high-performing leaders that positively impact their teams and organizations. High-performing leaders manage happy and engaged employees who love their work and give 110% every day, driving productivity and company performance. Scott believes in developing practical how-to leadership skills through real-world application. The companies he works with experience significant improvements, such as an 18% increase in productivity, a 15% increase in team member engagement, and a 10% reduction in turnover.