A ResLife Supervisor’s Guide: Managing Performance Through Inquiry

This post is part of a three-part series on starting a supervisory relationship in residence life. Following a chronological timeline, this series is broken up into three parts:

The Beginning: Staff Performance Begins with You
The Middle: A ResLife Supervisor’s Guide: Managing Performance Through Inquiry
The End: Preparing for Performance Evaluations

In the previous segment, we explored how setting a strong foundation for our staff begins on day one of employment. As managers, what we choose to say can set the tone for our staff’s trajectory in our organization and can make a difference in their sense of belonging and fit.

While the beginning establishes the cadence of our team’s work with us, the next period, which I call the middle has the most potential for supervisors and supervisees to engage in honest dialogue about how things are going and to consider if changes may need to be made to achieve success.

Pit Stops and Course Corrections

Month 6 – Month 10

In the span of the evaluation cycle, the middle months tend to be the most underutilized period for performance review and management.  At this point, teams have been working for half a year, they seem to have a grasp on the work at hand, and aside from an occasional fire here and there, work is sailing smoothly.  Everyone’s schedules are likely filled to the brim with meetings and projects so what often falls to the wayside during this “feel good time” are intentional check-in conversations about how things are going. However, teams who engage in ongoing check-ins are less likely to be surprised or uncomfortable when the big conversation comes around.  What’s more, having the big conversation broken into smaller and informal pieces diminishes its power of being something to dread.  

Part of the power behind this time lies in its placement between the beginning and end.  Due to staff no longer feeling new with a few months on the job, while also not being at the end with no time left to make adjustments; there exists an opportunity to have an honest, reflective, and low-stakes dialogue on how things are going that can lead to meaningful change and deeper understanding.  Not to mention, if the conversation allows a bi-directional flow for feedback, both staff and managers can gain valuable insight and perspective on their experience. While the specific topics will vary, posing questions that gauge belonging, support, goals (personal and professional), and understanding are great places to start. 

In my experience, one of the most meaningful conversations I had with a supervisee occurred during this period.  She was new to the position, but you wouldn’t know it given her stellar performance in various aspects of the role.  She was administratively strong and self-sufficient when completing tasks and projects.  She took on additional responsibilities in her first year and easily struck a balance between managing her community and being a contributing member to departmental committees and initiatives. Most importantly, she had a knack for building connections with both students and staff in a way that made you feel confident that she was invested in others’ success and well-being.  To put it simply, she was a rockstar!  However, neither I nor anyone else knew at the time that she was engaged in an internal battle that was slowly eating away at her.  That is until a simple question in a one-on-one conversation opened the door for dialogue.

“How are you feeling 6 months into the job?” This question is one I often ask my staff so they can reflect on the growth and development they feel they’ve undergone after about a semester in the role. However, when I inquired about this particular staff member, I immediately noticed a change in her demeanor.  You could see it in her posture, her lack of eye contact, and her shaky smile when she finally answered that she felt “good”.  I thought it best not to press the topic at the time, but felt it worthwhile to let her know that she was doing a great job and that if she ever had any questions or things she needed from me, she could always ask.  

As a supervisor, I could have treated her reaction like a land mine and avoided the topic altogether going forward. After all, there were clear signs that a chord was struck and that there was something she did not wish to share. But what kind of supervisor would I be if I stopped asking questions when a staff member had an interesting or unexpected reaction? A tough part of supervision, I believe, is navigating uncomfortable conversations and staying committed to building a strong relationship amidst setbacks–professional or personal.  Although our next few one-on-ones had some trepidation on my part on when and what to ask, we continued talking and connecting and getting to know one another outside of our respective roles which over time, helped us to develop a level of trust that allowed for more openness and honesty.  Through that, I learned more about her family back home and how much they meant to her, her professional passions and experiences she wanted under her belt, and her desire to get a puppy.  She learned more about my leadership style, what I valued in the work that we do, and my hobbies and goals in the upcoming years post-COVID.  While our supervisory relationship took time to grow, it eventually led to my staff member feeling comfortable to open up and say something that put a sinking feeling in my gut, “I need to tell you something, but I don’t want to disappoint you.”  Despite the concerning preface, I encouraged her to continue and assured her not to worry.

I learned she had growing insecurities about living states away from her community and long-term partner.  She expressed being torn because she loved the job, she enjoyed our working relationship and how she has grown, and she had formed strong connections with coworkers and students. At the same time, she could feel her mental health going on a downward slope and she feared she might burn out.  Despite a few attempts at making her current work environment a better fit, we ultimately created a plan for her exit strategy to get closer back to home.  Our one-on-one conversations shifted their focus to reflect on what skills she had gained thus far and how she could market herself to be a standout candidate for positions back home.  She eventually landed her dream job and while this meant the end of our supervisory relationship, we stayed in touch over the next couple of months and I was happy to hear her report how much happier she was.

If it were not for the work we put into building a positive working relationship, I may have remained in the dark about an exemplary staff member who was on her way to burnout.  Furthermore, my staff member may have never felt the courage to express her honest feelings knowing that it would leave me and others in our department feeling sad.  A simple question and an unexpected reaction set us down a path that resulted in a better ending.

Tips & Considerations

Reflective inquiry can be beneficial to supervisors much like a thermometer can be for someone feeling under the weather; both allow us to gauge the temperature of a situation and lead to a potential diagnosis of any problems before they become worse. This is assuming of course, that the conditions for using said tools are met (timing, placement, preparation), as to avoid having an inaccurate reading on the situation.

In the case of supervision, creating an environment that welcomes honesty, vulnerability, and trust within our teams makes suitable conditions for staff to offer valuable insight that can help supervisors determine if they are still heading down the right path. To facilitate conditions to engage in these types of conversations, consider the following.

Set the Tone

  • Make it a “Fun-on-One.” Ask your team about their favorite locations and meet there.
  • Normalize check-in questions and allow staff to share how they feel you are doing.
  • Provide timely feedback and insight, don’t wait until the end of the year.
  • Avoid canceling the meeting even if there is no “business” to cover.  

Be Present

  • Go off script, be organic, and have a conversation.
  • Is your body language showing your interest? (posture, positioning, eye contact.)
  • Remember what was said and follow up the next time. (i.e. “how did this go?”)
  • Offer suggestions for growth and development (conferences, professional connections, books).

Questions to Self (Before and After Conversations)

  • “What areas am I still uncertain of?” 
  • “What do I need to be  successful?”
  • “Have I created an environment for ongoing and open feedback?”

Questions to Others (During Conversations)

  • “How am I doing and what can I do differently, if at all??”
  • “In what ways have you grown since the year began?”
  • “How can I best support you and is there anything you need more or less of?”

In the final segment of this series, we will consider “the conversation” itself and how best to facilitate a productive conversation and make a fair assessment of the performance of our staff.

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