It's the last guest post in the Ready. Set. Empower Blog Series before ACUHO-I, where I'll talk about aligning intention and action. Owning Your Weird is a guest post by Travis Hill, Assistant Dean of Students for Residence Life at Hamilton College.
Have you ever noticed that people who are their authentic selves are pretty easy to spot? There is an ease about them. They have embraced their quirks and idiosyncrasies and see no need to apologize for them. Or as I like to say, people that own their weird - whatever it may be. Well, the process of being authentic as a person, as well as a supervisor, may come with time or it may come naturally. But once you have found your authentic voice and style, it is your responsibility as a supervisor to cultivate that in those you supervise. Here are five tips to help create a culture of authentic supervision.
Do the Work
It always seems to start there doesn’t it? Giving your authentic self as a supervisor first requires you know who and what that is. Your voice was known from day one and no one and nothing could stop it - maybe to your detriment at times. For others, it’s a process that likely includes significant self-reflection and the help of trusted others to hold up a mirror so we may see what is often so clear to those who know us best. In addition, intersecting identities, cultures both institutional and societal, and one’s ever growing life experience can all play a role in the development of a person’s true and authentic voice. However when you find your authentic self it is important to recognize that it is an on-going process, not the flip of a switch. Every style has pros and cons and there will be opportunities to evolve with life experience and changing circumstances.
For me, my weird tends to be my unwavering authenticity. I am compelled to be myself. I am not someone that is one person at home and one person at work and because of that I can only work in cultures that leave room for my quirks. I am compelled to be myself, even if it is not to my benefit in a situation. Humor and fun need to be part of my every day work, even when stress is at its peak. Actually, especially when stress is at its peak. I dress a half step (or more if I can get away with it) down from the cultural norm because comfort important to me. Big curly hair, a sometimes unkempt beard, a piercing here or there, and some occasionally visible tattoos adorning my 6’3” 300+ pound frame are all part of the circus I bring to the table. Thankfully I also have some other qualities that make me an effective staff member and (therefore) marketable in this field rather than just a walking caricature. Nonetheless, anyone that hires me gets the total package, for better or worse.
There is often an ease to be around someone that is comfortable in their own skin. An unspoken permission is given to those around them to pull back the curtain a bit. The opposite is also often true, people struggling to find their authentic selves tend to have an internal dissonance this is noticeable. Fair or not, that inauthenticity can foster mistrust and hesitation to open up. The more you share your authentic staff, the better of your staff will be.
Recently a former staff member of mine shared a story that really resonated with her as she reflected on our time working together. I remembered the story, but if asked to pin point a pivotal moment in our supervisory relationship, this one would not have even hit the radar. Nevertheless, she pointed to my support as she grappled personally and professionally with a highly inappropriate and very public comment directed at her by a student as a major influence on our relationship. It was a sign that rather than trying to fix it, I followed my empathic nature to focus on listening and affirming my staff members legitimate feelings about the situation. It was exactly what she needed and our relationship grew because of it.
Another consideration when role modeling authenticity is to share with purpose. Some people opt to keep their own stories and personal lives out of their relationships with staff while others share freely. Personally, especially in the early stages of developing a relationship with those I supervise, I try to share when an experience I had can help show commonality of experience, provide context to a decision, or help my staff member avoid a mistake I may have made in the past. How you show your authentic self may be intentional or natural, but when it’s present in your work and supervision your staff will benefit and be given license to do the same.
Build Teams, Cultivate Individuals
We are raised to believe well-roundedness is the key to success. It is not good enough to be an excellent student, you have to be an athlete and artist and philanthropist - and - and - and. My informal belief was given a formal framework after becoming familiar with StrengthsQuest. In a nutshell, it is much easier and more productive to make strengths stronger than to expend the time and energy necessary to make a weakness a strength. Therefore, instead of trying to create the perfect cookie cutter staff member that can do it all, intentionally build a well-rounded team. This may require seeing job descriptions as more fluid or at least expanding “other duties as assigned.” It may also require a new approach to interviewing. What questions do you ask to find a much needed detail-oriented staff member? How do you identify an empath? Any time a position is vacated it should be an opportunity to help fill out your team with people energized by the work most needed and least appealing to the existing team. This approach maximizes the team leader’s ability to foster authentic professionals that can do the same in their own supervision. Field of Dreams said it best, “If you build it, they will come.”
Not long ago I realized our entry-level residential life position required such an array of skills that even my best candidates could only do 80 percent of the job at a high level. That meant they spent a significant amount of time fumbling through the other 20 percent getting frustrated and feeling inadequate. This did nothing for team morale and left portions of the job getting done inefficiently and ineffectively. In response we changed the job duties to maximize the number of potential candidates that could realistically do all aspects of our entry-level position exceptionally well. The remaining duties were combined to create a position one level up in order to better recruit the less easily found housing and conduct focused residential life professional. All of these changes afford me the opportunity to create a well-rounded team of individuals well suited for their specific roles, so more of my focus can be on helping them hone their authentic supervision skills.
Be the Mirror
Again, some people are born able to be their authentic selves and others may have a journey to take. For those who have always known who they are in the world, there is no guarantee of an easy road. Owning your weird is not always popular in grade school, sometimes it is downright punishable by those still struggling to gain comfort in themselves. It may not stop there. Our society, institutional cultures, or office cultures can inhibit exploration of even the most self-aware person. Alternatively, folks that have not figured out who they are sometimes are well aware and struggle mightily and others may be woefully unaware and in need of significant self-reflection. As a supervisor, it is your duty to help each person see their strengths and weaknesses. It is also the responsibility of the supervisor to find the delicate balance of providing direct, clear feedback without leaving your staff member feeling unsupported. The wrong approach can stunt growth by being overly cautious and sugarcoating feedback leaving it underemphasized and unclear. On the other hand, an approach that is too pointed or an overemphasis on weaknesses can feel discouraging and make the road ahead seem too daunting. Being authentic as a supervisor means a level of flexibility is required to best help your staff become their best selves.
One of my most powerful learning moments as a supervisor was when I needed to deliver significant constructive feedback provided by the Resident Advisors of a first year, entry-level staff member. As a feeling-oriented person fearing that the feedback would be devastating to my young staff member, I began heavily sugarcoating. To her credit, shortly into the conversation my staff member stopped me and let me know that my softening of the harsh criticism was actually making it harder for her. I was stunned and forced to regroup. I gave the feedback directly, which she accepted and moved forward. She went on to be one of my best staff members at the entry-level and was promoted because of how great of an asset she was to me and our office. I learned that my fear of hurting my staff members’ feelings led me to soften the feedback which toned down the intended seriousness, made things unclear, and ultimately did not best help my staff members grow. Now I provide calm, direct feedback with words of support for how best to move forward and allow my future actions prove my continued effort and enthusiasm to work with the staff member as they work to improve.
Feed the Fire
Equipped with the knowledge of their areas of strength and those needing improvement, the last crucial step is to assign tasks and delegate intentionally so that each staff member is using their strengths as much as possible while limiting situations where they have to do things that are weaknesses. This provides ample opportunity for your staff to be their authentic selves, keeps up morale, and limits energy draining work that may be better accomplished by someone else who could be energized by the same task. Additionally, the more autonomy a staff member can have when selecting those they supervise, the better chance they have to continue the culture of authentic supervision. It allows your staff to build teams intentionally with those that are most likely to find compatibility with their supervisor and one another. Fit is important in all roles and at all levels.
Employees in their first year who supervise student staff often inherit a staff who did not have a say in hiring and where many of the student leaders may have had a strong connection to the person formerly in that position. I recently had a new staff member that took over a Resident Advisor staff hired by someone with vastly different strengths. From the beginning, there was palpable tension between the RA staff and the new professional staff member. For a while my staff member tried to change her approach to accommodate the wishes of her RAs that more aligned with her predecessor. This approach felt unnatural and did not improve the relationships with her staff members. After a variety of attempts we agreed that the better approach to supervision was to be true to her authentic voice. It took some adjustment on the part of the RAs. Some never adjusted, but many came around. Fit is always important, but generally when a supervisor is being their authentic selves it disarms, reassures, and role models so everyone can benefit and grow.
Travis Hill is the Assistant Dean of Students for Residence Life at Hamilton College and will be entering his 15th academic year having served a variety of roles within Residential and Student Life. Travis participated in and went on to facilitate Hamilton Managers Roundtable on multiple occasions. Outside of work, Travis and his wife Liz serve as the Resident Directors for Clinton A Better Chance program (also on Facebook) where they live with their own two young children with a wonderful group of seven young men of Color seeking educational opportunities by moving to Clinton to attend the local high school and participate in the program.