Supervising for Strengths, not Deficits

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Strong staff teams start with strong managers who understand how to build a strong team. Learn to move beyond building a well-rounded individual and move to lead your team based on their strengths. Read about the various inventories and assessments that can help you build your team!

I have spent the past month detailing part of my professional journey as a student affairs professional, highlighting some of the ways I fell short of building my skills and how I was impacted by the politics that were on-going in the places where I worked. I was able to reflect on the lessons learned from each experience and what I would do differently the next time around. It was a healthy, albeit exhausting, experience to document and I feel differently about my professional journey after the reflection.

We get a different perspective when we look at our past with a different lens. I am trying to look at how I was trained to manage and supervise others.

One of the common themes I noticed that showed up in multiple departments and across the decades and types of institutions: not knowing how to ask for better supervision. I struggled with asking for help and sometimes floundered for months with a supervisor who was ill-equipped to help me reach OUR goals.

One thing I have taken away from the experience is that I was forever judged for the work I was doing but only so much as it was a reflection on the department and division I was working for. While the impact was allegedly important, it was always more important than making sure I was fully equipped to manage the situation. In many ways, I was always being managed and supervised for my deficits rather than my strengths.

This will be the first in a series of posts about supervising to staff strengths, focusing on the assessments and inventories available.

Now That I Look Back…

I have often wondered if the model we use for training our student affairs professionals, which lack the basics in recruitment and management for professional staff, may be contributing to some of the issues we have in retaining entry-level staff. According to Marshall and associates (2016), “New professionals leave the field for a number of reasons including supervision issues, lack or perceived lack of mentoring, inadequate professional development, and unrealistic expectations set in graduate preparation programs.”

The same study also shared that 50-60% of new professionals leave within the first five years on the job. As I think about my own experiences in higher education administration, those first five years on the job were critical in developing my sense of self and my purpose in the field and equipped me with the skills to lead future departments. And that scares me now!

According to Marshall and associates (2016), 50-60% of new professionals leave within the first five years on the job.

If we aren’t learning skills in graduate school nor finding adequate mentoring in our first years on the job, is it any wonder why people choose to leave that could have stayed with better supervisors? How do we overcome this deficit to our skills? What should we learn and prioritize to better help our student affairs divisions create an organization where people thrive and share in the success than want to leave after the first few years?

I believe that supervision skills are where it all begins and I am going to suggest a couple of ways that you can improve your own staff supervision skills by leading from a strengths-based model.

Inventories and Assessments, Oh My!

When I reference the language of strengths, I am not only referring to the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment. While the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment uses the actual term “strengths,” I am also referring to any assessment or inventory that gives feedback on how staff members operate on a team or build relationships among their peers. There are several types of assessments out there and I suggest that your first step is to begin to learn a little about each of them:

The Leadership Challenge

From the Leadership Challenge website: “Over three million people have taken their first steps towards their personal leadership best with the Leadership Practices Inventory® (LPI®), a 360-degree assessment tool by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. Based on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model, the 360-degree assessments and facilitator materials illuminates both the effectiveness of your leaders and the level of commitment, engagement and satisfaction of those that follow.”

One of the benefits of using the LPI is that the instrument has a 360-degree evaluation component that allows the staff member to receive feedback from an Observer. With a large staff, you can have multiple observers and have the staff give feedback to everyone on the team so that each person can share how they perceive themselves and understand how others perceive their leadership on the team. I have always found it useful to know and understand how others perceive my leadership, as I sometimes skew my perception to ignore the parts that distract from the team.

DISC Profile Inventory

From the DISC Profile website: “The DiSC® model provides a common language that people can use to better understand themselves and to adapt their behaviors with others — within a work team, a sales relationship, a leadership position, or other relationships. DiSC profiles help you and your team:

  • “Increase your self-knowledge: how you respond to conflict, what motivates you, what causes you stress, and how you solve problems
  • “Improve working relationships by recognizing the communication needs of team members
  • “Facilitate better teamwork and teach productive conflict
  • “Develop stronger sales skills by identifying and responding to customer styles
  • “Manage more effectively by understanding the dispositions and priorities of employees and team members”

Similar to the LPI, the DISC Profile inventory gives a great deal of information on how we work with others on a team. I have used this inventory a number of times with both professional and student staff members to help them anticipate conflict on the team, which almost always is centered on the differences each style places on decision making and risk for self and the team.

Knowing and understanding a preferred style for communication has allowed me to shift one-on-ones meetings in ways that match my staff’s preferred style, switching from a formal, agenda-driven manner to a walk around campus talking about people, relationships, and connecting our thoughts on what is going on in the present, depending on the staff member.

Strength Deployment Inventory

From the Strength Deployment Inventory website: “Our approach involves helping people understand how their motives drive their behaviors, how those motives and behaviors change during different situations, and how to develop a better understanding of the motive-driven behaviors of others. It’s an approach that drives stronger relationships and more effective teams. This philosophy has driven our approach for more than 40 years with more than 2+ million people and it’s more important than ever in modern work environments.”

One of the benefits of the Strength Deployment Inventory is that you can learn about your strengths when your environment is stable and predictable and what your strengths are when your environment is changing or in chaos. This inventory was great for the staff I worked with when we were engaged in unpredictable environments, like when challenging college or university policy or when we were in the middle of significant departmental changes.

While other inventories would tell us useful information, knowing where and how our strengths changed when in crisis allowed us to forgive each other and ourselves when we were a different version of ourselves, a useful tool for any manager.

Gallup StrengthsFinder

From the Gallup StrengthsFinder website: “You can’t afford not to lead with CliftonStrengths. Employees who receive strengths-based development have:

  • “7%-23% higher employee engagement
  • “8%-18% increased performance
  • “20%-73% lower attrition

“Higher employee engagement. Increased productivity and sales. Lower attrition. What are these improvements worth to you? To your organization? If you could manage your team with CliftonStrengths but didn’t, and you left these performance gains on the table, how long would you have a seat there? Sure, you’re responsible for more than just employee engagement or satisfaction, or whatever your company calls it. But it’s no secret that engaged employees positively impact performance, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that 67% of employees who agree that their manager focuses on their strengths are engaged at work. That percentage plummets to just 2% when employees disagree.”

One of the unique benefits of the Gallup StrengthsFinder is that the feedback provided is geared towards supporting the development of ones strengths and leveraging the strengths as a way to mitigate areas that need work or more support. For instance, if your strengths are in the Influencing theme, but you have a position that requires more Strategic Thinking skills, you can partner with others who have this strength to create a natural collaborative team. The team relies on these collaborative relationships and allows for staff to grow into their strengths rather than engage in a skill-building that doesn’t highlight their abilities.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

From the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Foundation website: “The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people’s lives. The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.

In developing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [instrument], the aim of Isabel Briggs Myers, and her mother, Katharine Briggs, was to make the insights of type theory accessible to individuals and groups. They addressed the two related goals in the developments and application of the MBTI instrument:

  • The identification of basic preferences of each of the four dichotomies specified or implicit in Jung’s theory.
  • The identification and description of the 16 distinctive personality types that result from the interactions among the preferences.”

The MBTI has been a long-time favorite of managers to understand how people process information, prioritize projects and find energy to work alone or with others. Based on Jungian theory, the MBTI can be difficult to understand but with some basic training on the four dimensions of the inventory, a manager can help employees learn how to maximize their strengths in processing information and making decisions. I know that when I understood that my need to process facts over inferred information was a source of conflict with my co-workers was a revelation.

The Personal Benefits of Knowing Your Strengths

In my own professional experience, I have seen the benefit of using strengths and creating stress by down-playing them. In one staff team, we used the DISC Inventory after encountering some incredibly challenging work environments. We weren’t communicating very well, as a staff, and we didn’t understand why each other wasn’t doing what the others needed to be successful.

However, when we began to use the DISC styles to understand our behavior in relationship to others, it became clear that we were asking our peers to behave and think like us in order to do our work, which was a recipe for disaster.

I was identified as an Influencer in the DISC model, which on this team meant that I liked to verbally brainstorm and workshop ideas before settling on one. In particular I enjoyed brainstorming in the middle of the day as a way to become inspired, by reading the expressions on people’s faces to gauge reactions and know if something was a good or bad idea. I would then sell the idea to the rest of the staff once I figured out which idea was the one that had the stickiness factor to move on.

My biggest fear was being described and misunderstood like this – a lot of talking, a little doing.

One of my co-workers had a Compliant or Conscientious style, which meant she was very analytical and liked to have data to back up her decisions. People in this style don’t value social interaction to the same degree as an Influencer and like to take their time in making decisions within specific boundaries. Because we were so different, we would never have figured out that our distinct work issues were more tied to our styles than any other factor.

Once we began to work through our inventory styles and how they would play out in the office, we became natural collaborators. She knew she could stop by my office to help her make decisions between two or three things very quickly and give her several ideas to consider based on what little data I did have, and I knew she was going to be a great person to make a tough decision once I had all the data to make one. It was a rough experience to get to this point, but our supervisor tried her best to get us to work better together.

…And You Become a Better Supervisor

By understanding the strengths your staff possesses, instead of supervising them to be a well-rounded staff member we should be working to develop a well-rounded team. I have had a number of supervisors who would identify areas for growth in my annual evaluation that at this point I know I am not going to master or add them to my strengths. I have also had supervisors try to give unconstructive feedback on my strengths, trying to get me to change how I need to work that better meets their own needs.

But rather than hire new staff with these skills, or learn them on their own, they put the incredibly hard work on staff to develop their own deficits. I usually don’t stay long in those organizations, because it’s mentally exhausting trying to suppress our strengths to be someone else.

We are better supervisors when we ask our staff to show up, authentically, and be who they are without boundaries.

I believe that in order to be a more effective supervisor, we all need to know and understand our strengths and we should be doing this work transparently with our staff members. By encouraging others to know and understand themselves, in relation to others, we encourage these transparent staff building challenges and move to sharing the work together. Do this work with your staff and you will see that they will be more engaged, more involved, and more invested in the work we need to do to educate our students.

For Your Personal and Professional Development

Below are the inventories and models described above. Through my affiliate status with Amazon, I do receive a small portion of your fees, which I will use to grow my business. You can find any of these books online or through the websites listed above.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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