The Space Between Supervising Closely and Delegating


Where Growth Happens






Most of us know what Supervising Closely looks like. It’s doing things like:

    • Setting goals.
    • Telling what needs to be done.
    • Explaining how to do it.
    • Setting timelines.
    • Checking progress.
    • Providing frequent feedback.

And most of us know what Delegating looks like:

    • You leave them alone and let them do their job.

If you want to be an effective leader, you need to be able to hang out in the space in the middle.

It doesn’t work when you try to jump over that space.

When you jump from Closely Supervising to Delegating.

Nancy decided to delegate her calendar to her new assistant. Her assistant took over scheduling like any other activity – she efficiently fit names in open slots. The problem was that friends who wanted a “let’s touch base” call were treated like clients and given “appointments.” (which they didn’t appreciate). And some clients were annoyed because they were used to a personal touch and felt distanced.

When you jump from Delegating to Closely Supervising.

After numerous complains by clients and friends, Nancy told her assistant to check with her before scheduling. Later she was surprised to overhear her assistant complaining that she was too controlling. Once someone has been given responsibility for something, it’s hard to take it back.

The space between Supervising Closely and Delegating is where growth occurs and where relationships are forged.

It’s an interactive space. It’s about both of you, not just the task at hand.

What you do in this space:

    • Listening
    • Asking questions
    • Reassuring
    • Encouraging
    • Asking their opinion
    • Debriefing and learning from mistakes
    • Providing perspective
    • Appreciating

As a leader, where do you spend most of your time? If you really want to know, ask your direct reports. You might be surprised at what they have to say.

When should you stop hanging out in the middle and move to Delegating? – When they have demonstrated they are fully competent and confident to do the work independently. Just as Nancy found out, you’re not doing anyone a favor by delegating too soon.

The Difference Between Delegating and Abdicating

When you abdicate, you disappear.

When you delegate, you stay aware of:

    • Major issues that could affect success (ultimately you are accountable).
    • Completion of major milestones.

When you delegate, your job is to make it easy for them to do their job. The kinds of things you do are:

    • Remove roadblocks.
    • Provide resources they need.
    • Provide opportunities for interesting, new challenges.
    • Protect them from unrealistic demands from the larger organization.
    • Champion them in the larger organization.

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22 comments to The Space Between Supervising Closely and Delegating

  • This is a great, practical post. I often find managers challenged to hang out in one camp or another. I love the concept of the space between

  • fay kandarian

    Thank you for the wonderful labeling of the space between closely supervising and delegating as the place where growth happens and relationship are build. I look forward to sharing that (with attribution of course) as I work with leaders.

  • susan

    Hi Jess,

    I love this. It helps explain in more detail what I am trying to do with my teachers….listen, make mistakes, feedback, and be comfortable in the space in between….

    • Hi Susan, sounds like you have an intuitive sense of what’s needed. Glad to be able to provide a frame for it. Making the effort to stay in that space requires intention and effort. Often people are not as comfortable there as they are when supervising closely or delegating because it requires your whole self to be present and engaged.

  • Thanks for the post. I love that you’re exploring the area in between – we have such a tendency to paint the world as black and white but the real juicy stuff is usually in the middle. You did a great job of simplifying that sticky middle ground and making it tangible and relevant for folks!

    • Well said, Ariana! It is infinitely juicier when we move out of a polarized orientation and into the world of possibilities. One of my goals is to offer practical tips for understanding and taking action from that orientation. I’m delighted to hear this post was helpful in that.

  • I think you’ve captured this one perfectly. And I would add, if at first you as supervisor feel a little awkward in the in-between space, that’s fine, and then it becomes a personal leadership workshop, as well. Thanks, Jesse. All the best.

  • Supervising Closely is, by and large, never an easy and desired option. Delegating is an option which not only requires a high degree of competence of the part of the one who delegates, but also requires far more patience, perseverance, ability to take failures in to unflinching stride, and above all, a well of faith in the basic tenet that no human wishes to willingly err or fail.
    So, one may be remaining in the Space between Close Supervision and Delegation unconsciously.
    But to do so consciously is indeed a novel concept, and no doubt with a wealth of possibilities.

    • Thanks for sharing your excellent observations, Ashhok. Indeed, neither option is tenable over the long-term, which is why managers bounce back and forth between them. As you point out, the key is consciously managing from the space between. Through the real conversation and genuine human contact that occurs, a foundation of mutual respect, trust, and faith is established that ultimately supports the manager in letting go of control and delegating effectively. (And just possibly when this occurs enough, their general control needs and views of human nature might change as well.)

  • Gurmeet singh Pawar

    Nice post & beautifully written.


  • Mary Jo Asmus

    Jesse, your descriptors very nicely describe a leader-coach. Thanks for your clarity of what the middle looks like (to me, it looks like coaching!). Well done!

  • Brilliantly stated. I find leaders who promote someone into management and then abdicate–little realizing that moving from bud to boss requires a new set of skills. It is that “in-between space” where the leader listens, watches, coaches and guides until the new manager feels confident in that spot.

    Thanks, Jesse. will share with my clients,

  • The in-between space is so important to recognize. In the Solution Focus approach I use we talk about problems being between people. This helps them view the problem as something abstract rather than it being the other person. The space between supervision and delegation is a terrific idea. Thanks.

    • Thanks for showing how the between space helps with conflict resolution and problem-solving, Alan. One can actually visualize the problem sitting in that space instead of residing in the other person, which is the typical way we view it. Putting the problem in that space opens the possibilities for different relationship and different action. One might actually envision the problem as a monkey. Oh wait, that’s what you help people do, right?

  • Jesse

    Thank you for another insightful post. I think managers need to be comfortable with not having a label as a controlling or hands off leader. Not being slotted into a box is okay. The magic certainly happens when the needle keeps moving from left towards the right and back to left without leaning over too much or staying at either end of the spectrum ( maybe a bit like driving, speed up, speed down depending on the road, speed limits, concentration levels, visibility and time to destination etc ).
    Would love to hear your take on this

    • I completely agree with you! You describe the nuances of movement beautifully. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts to the conversation. You remind me that the problem with labels is they put us in boxes. One of my favorite professors used to say, “Label jars, not people.”

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