A ResLife Supervisor’s Guide: Staff Performance Begins with You

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

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So when you hear “performance appraisal,” “evaluation” or “annual review,” what comes to mind? Is it something you consider a vital resource to your career?  Is it something you dread over until the moment the conversation ends?

Whether you are a manager or supervisor, the time of year when someone’s breadth of work is under a microscope can be an uncomfortable experience for all parties involved.  Think about it.  This meeting could dictate whether you are considered for advancement. For others, it could determine if your income will rise. And, in some instances, this meeting can signal the beginning or an end to a job or relationship.  While we can’t avoid these types of conversations in the workplace, we can make them valuable to both employees and employers in a way that promotes retention, well-being, and success.  For that to happen, some thoughtful planning and communication should take place before the conversation itself.  Let’s consider what opportunities exist throughout a full evaluation cycle, starting at the very beginning.

Politics, Priorities, and Preferences 

Day 1 – Month 6

For purposes of our understanding, the “beginning” can be considered the starting of a job position or the starting of one’s journey with a new manager.  It is arguably the most crucial period for setting a supervisor and a supervisee up for success.  While it is standard for new roles and relationships to involve an orientation, trainings, meetings, and a review of materials or artifacts, there is a need to fill in gaps of what might go unsaid or unseen in the interview and transition processes.


Politics, priorities, and preferences–the three P’s as I like to call them—are areas in which I have observed staff struggle if time is not dedicated to discussing how performance and success can be attained through managing the intangible aspects of a job.  First, we have politics; the red tape that governs how work gets done, and the unspoken understanding folks have about it.  Due to a somewhat negative association, it can be a delicate conversation to have amongst your team about the inner workings of an organization and how best to maneuver them to be successful.  However, if we don’t engage in a candid conversation on how to effectively complete our work, then we run the risk of setting others up to hit invisible walls and social traps that could get in the way of feeling safe, valued, and a contributing member to the organization. 

To broach this conversation both comfortably and professionally, consider if the format needs to involve a formal presentation or if an informal conversation can suffice.  Furthermore, framing this conversation through processes or expectations could get around the dicey nature of why things may be done a certain way, while still preserving the clear direction on how things are best done.  For instance, do staff really need to know that a certain campus partner is notoriously bad with email communication or do they just need to know the expectation on how to communicate to campus partners at large?  


Second, we have priorities.  Priorities are informed by politics, and they exist on both an individual and organizational level.  They are functions of the job that carry more weight due to various reasons (values, expectations, perceived impact), but are often where we look first in terms of evaluating if someone is performing well.  In general, we should introduce the topic of priorities and where best to direct one’s time and energy at the beginning of the journey, and it should be one that is revisited throughout the year as seasonal work or new charges and tasks arise. What’s more, we should be clear on how that looks different if the end user for the work is someone else other than their supervisor.

I learned this the hard way as a new manager when I started to receive feedback about a staff member of mine who regularly missed a weekly deadline in our department for work that was managed by a colleague.  When I addressed it with said staff member, I learned that they were putting this task at the end of their to-do list because it was not a student-facing, and as both our department and my staff member valued being in community with our students, they were not aware of the equal importance this task had on the student experience—albeit behind the scenes.  My staff member and I revisited a conversation on priorities with some added context on how to manage work that is assigned from colleagues or other offices, and sure enough, the issue was a thing of the past.


Lastly, we have preferences.  This is the least formal measure of performance evaluations but it is still something that has the likelihood of showing up in appraisals.  Preferences are the ways and methods we like work to be done—usually regarding how and when it’s done.  It can be the most difficult area of performance to succeed in as one’s preferences for work can vary and from the stated job expectation.

For example, I had a colleague who valued planning and organization above anything else.  She had her direct reports map out and present their plans to engage their students on a regular basis so that she could make sure things were on track (a task we as managers all had to do).  In talking to her staff, they often felt this was extra work and it led to some stress and anxiety since their counterparts were not expected to do the same.  However, in really digging into their concerns, it was less about the task itself and more about what it meant if they did not do it well—would it be a ding on their evaluation? Would they get in trouble?

While preferences are perfectly okay, they likely need the most time in the beginning conversations as they are the least likely to be referenced or clearly understood merely from reading one’s job description.  What’s more, when it comes time for evaluations, managers should be thoughtful in centering conversations on one’s preferences versus the performance.  At the end of the day, if the evaluation isn’t asking if the staff member completes their work to one’s stylistic preferences, it’s better left to discuss informally.


Sometimes, we fall into the trap of thinking that job descriptions or training take the place of instilling an understanding of the cultural expectations of the work.  Where friction or frustration can surface are instances in which priorities are left unshared or are not contextualized–leading to potential misaligned use of time, energy, and resources.  Here are some questions to consider for yourself and for others at this stage.

For more thoughts on performance management, check out the next installment focusing on the power of asking questions after the year has begun and everyone has started to find their groove.

Reflection Questions


  • Your most valuable question to yourself might be, “do I have an understanding of politics, priorities and preferences on the various levels of the organization?”
  • Your most valuable question to your manager might be, “what are your priorities for this work?” “what does success look like to you for someone in my position?”


  • Your most valuable questions to yourself might be, “am I outlining politics, priorities, and preferences to those with whom I work?”
  • Your most valuable questions to your staff might be, “how are you organizing your time? What goes to the top of your list?”

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