naspa graduate associate program gap

Tim Maggio and Tolu Taiwo

August 14, 2014

Supervision is always a difficult task.  Essentially, you are taking on responsibility for yourself and a certain number of people underneath you. Immediate reactions may be, “Doing my own job is a lot. How can I be responsible for 6 more people?”


Supervision is not about doing six other people’s job. You have recruited, selected, and hired these people to perform a job with specific duties and tasks.  Let’s look at residence life for example. A hall director is supervising six RAs for a number of reasons such as

1.    You need a peer-leader in the halls because students prefer interacting with peers

2.    You need a certain number of people to do programs, duty, rounds, etc.

3.    You need a resource in the halls. You might want a ratio like 1 RA per 20 students.

The list goes on, but the point is that hiring has practical reasons, and the first thing you need to know as a supervisor is that you hired these people for those practical reasons. You do not have enough time in the day to complete everything you do, so don’t add a list that is not yours. A supervisor of mine says, “Don’t pack someone else’s luggage in your bags.”

So, you don’t have to do their job and yours? What is your role as a supervisor?

As most things in life, I don’t have an answer for you because there is no cookie-cutter model of supervision. There are strategies, hints, tips and ideas that have worked for some people, but the first thing to know about supervision is to know yourself. Ask yourself some questions…

How do I like being supervised?

How do I not like being supervised?

What style works for me?

What are the expectations I hold of myself and my staff?

What do I want to accomplish as a supervisor?

Although I don’t have an answer for you, I also think it is important to explore some different theories. Douglas McGregor developed Theory X and Theory Y to explain workforce motivation in the 1960s. Although this is about workforce motivation, it is important to understand where you stand with these theories because it will likely reveal a great deal about how you supervise.

Theory X

This theory states that the folks you are supervising are lazy and avoid work because they do not like to work.  In this theory, the management tends to become what has become known as “micromanagers.” The supervisors who believe this about their employees think there is a need for a close level of supervision.  Also, these supervisors tend to believe that incentives are the way to get employees excited about tasks or goals.

Theory Y

This theory assumes people love their jobs, and these individuals are self-motivated.  A supervisor operating under this philosophy may give their staff little supervision because there is a strong trust that these staff members will look for responsibility and take initiative.

Take some time to reflect on these theories and see where you think you fall. Ask yourself why do you think this way? Do you think it is a mix of X and Y? Why do you think it is mostly X?

Personally, I believe it is unrealistic to place people in a box of X and Y. I think a more realistic representation of these theories in practice is that most people will fall somewhere in the middle. 

Once you understand your supervisory style—or at least have a general idea of what supervisor you want to be—there are some strategies you can take to enhance your skills and take on a supervisory role.

Constant communication is key

Lack of communication is one of the quickest ways a team may fall apart. Students will look to you for answers and direction, and it helps to build strong communication between the whole staff. There isn’t only one way to communicate, so I suggest also understanding your communication style and the communication styles of your supervisees. For example, if you’re more of an indirect communicator, make sure you understand how to relate to those who need clearer instruction sooner. It also doesn’t hurt to give everyone a head’s up about your style early on in the year, just so supervisees know what to expect.

Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations

Unfortunately, working with students isn’t all rainbows and ice cream cakes for dinner. There will be a couple of necessary times for hard developmental conversations, and they won’t always be the most fun talks to have. However, it’s always good to remember these conversations aren’t to point fingers or make a student feel some sort of shame, but to promote developmental growth. It also helps to hear all sides of the stories before sitting students down when it comes to inter-team conflicts, otherwise you may get stuck in the persecutor-victim-rescuer loop of the drama triangle.

Be a part of the team

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to work with Housing Orientation programs, and we all received two different color shirts to wear during the summer. My direct supervisor made it a point to wear the same color shirts as us grads and our students because, as she put it, “we’re all on the same team.” Yes, there needs to be a clear distinction between you as a supervisor and your supervisees, but make sure you don’t put yourself on an overarching pedestal to the point that you appear unapproachable.

Apply theory to practice when applicable…

One of the best gifts student affairs professionals have is application of theory. It’s always helpful to be able to pinpoint where a student is coming from in their development and their experiences. Obviously, we’re not going to hold up charts of Chickering’s theory to our students’ faces and tell them they’re performing a certain way because they’re in the “Managing Emotions” stage. But in order to aid our students and supervise them in an individual level, it helps to know where they’re coming from.

…But make sure you don’t solely use theory to explain behaviors.

Theories are great, but often times there are students who do. A student may be in different stages at once, and we can’t dismiss past experiences and other factors. Plus, often times we don’t have the time to sit down and thumb through our Student Development book or remember such-and-such theories when we’re focusing on students’ issues, and we need to meet with a student in ten minutes to talk about certain behaviors. Theory helps, but it shouldn’t be the end-all for supervising. 

Get to know your staff members.

Know when their birthdays are! Be aware of some of their favorite things to do! At the very least, have more than just a vague relocation of their names and faces. Some of my best supervisors had a wide range of supervision styles, but they all managed to treat me like a person and got to know a little bit more about me. A little bit of effort goes a long way, and students will appreciate being more than just another employee.

Remember: Everyone makes mistakes.

There are some days that you’ll want to take a more “Y” approach and will come out with a misguided “X.” You may accidently give student staff the answer, or end up micromanaging because you forgot to delegate that day. Know that it’s okay! There is no such thing as the “perfect supervisor,” and as we all go about learning our supervising styles, we’re bound to hit a couple of bumps along the way. Just take a deep breathe, remember to learn from your mistakes, and take what you’ve learned to improve to your best ability.

One thing to remember is that at the end of the day, you are still supervising human beings, so I think we have to be careful when we think supervising student staff members are different. I think the environment and context of supervision is different than something you would find at a fast food restaurant or a retail shop. When you are supervising students, I think the biggest thing you need to realize is that they came to your institution for a degree.  As a student affairs professional, how are you being a resource on their journey to that degree? Now, you obviously do not earn the degree for them, but you want to see how you can make sure they succeed. 

Other than that, remember that supervision is always a learning experience and you can adjust as you go along your journey.

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