Supervision and Recognition

Author: Fiona Corner

Readers, I will not profess that I am an expert at supervision. With only five, going on six, years of supervising students, graduate students, and professional staff I have so much more to learn. But, what I have learned in these past few years is that supervision is truly an art and supervisors come at the art from a variety of perspectives.

As a Higher Education Administration graduate student, I spent four semesters exploring student development theory, law, finance, leadership, and designing learning. But, I did not take a class on supervision. For better or for worse, my “coursework” on supervision was learned on the job. I learned about supervision during my first professional staff training, my first year as a graduate assistant, but I mostly learned about supervision from watching my previous supervisors, during lunch with my colleagues, and meetings after the meetings when my colleagues and I processed. We all have stories to tell about being a supervisor or a supervisee, and whether the story is good bad, or ugly, the ever-present lesson is that the supervisor is essential to the creation of the successful work environment.

When I start to feel my confidence around supervision dwindling, which often occurs towards the end of the quarter when my students are becoming antsy for a break, I turn to the supervisors and stories I look up to in our field.

In the March + April 2016 issue of Talking Stick, the authoritative source on campus housing, LaFarin Meriwether and Brittany Philbert (a colleague of mine from the University of Dayton) talk about Managing Full Circle. (Maybe we can unpack their title in another post since management, supervision, and leadership are all very different tasks). In their article, the authors discuss Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton. Sutton offers his “11 Commandments of Wise Bosses”.

  1. Have strong opinions and weakly held beliefs.
  2. Do not treat others as if they are idiots.
  3. Listen attentively to your people, don’t just pretend to hear what they say.
  4. Ask a lot of good questions.
  5. Ask others for help and gratefully accept their assistance.
  6. Do not hesitate to say, “I don’t know.”
  7. Forgive people when they fail, remember the lessons, and teach them to everyone.
  8. Fight as if you are right, and listen as if you are wrong.
  9. Do not hold grudges after losing an argument. Instead, help the victors implement their ideas with all of their might.
  10. Know your foibles and flaws, and work with people who correct and compensate for your weaknesses.
  11. Express gratitude to your people.

I’m not sure how I feel about all of them, but for me, that last one is if not the most, one of the most important. Last year my staff shared with me that I was not recognizing them enough. I was not thanking them enough for their work, I was not appreciative of their efforts, I did not recognize when they did something great. This was hard to hear since I do consider recognition as a top strength. Because of this, I had to reassess how I incorporated recognition and gratitude into my supervision.

I took a look back at a book I read in graduate school, called The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. In their book, Zander and Zander, discuss a practice they call “Giving an A”. Giving an A literally means giving people an A. Essentially it looks like not comparing employees to each other or to my own experiences as a student (as I often did). Zander shares that Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. If we give our supervisees an A, we take all of our energy to focus on chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each person’s developing skills, mastery, and self-expression. “When you give an A – to your boss, your colleague, your students - your eye is on the statue within the roughness of the uncut stone. The A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into."

I decided to give my staff an A. Instead of only keeping track of each task they turned in late or follow-up they forgot to do, I also started keeping track of their wins. Even if the win was expectation of their job responsibilities, because for my staff that was what mattered. When I read a great incident report, I emailed or texted the staff member to share that I appreciated their work. When they showed up on time to staff meeting I thanked them for being respectful of my time. Over the next quarter I built up trust with my staff that I was grateful for their work and we moved on to gratitude for bigger things. My staff realized that I was appreciative that they completed their work and were present with their students and so they then decided that their work was of value. We were able to move on to recognition of a 4.0 or a co-building program and even committee membership, experiences that were beyond their expected job expectations.

For me, giving an A became part of my parallel pallet. It became part of my statement of supervision I keep in google folder for when someone asks me to describe my supervision style. While this is a small, but integral, piece of how I design my supervision for my staff, for me it is one of the most important. While I have read that we should not work for recognition, but do work worthy of recognition, I believe that we should recognize others as authentically and as often as possible. Recognition is one of the greatest motivators and sometimes all it takes is a simple thank you.

About the author: Fiona serves as a Residence Hall Coordinator at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She has five years of supervision experience supervising desk assistants, resident assistants, graduate assistants, and operations assistants staff from whom she has learned quite a bit but not enough yet. Fiona also serves as the NWASAP Marketing and Promotions Coordinator. You can find her on Twitter: @FionaCorner.