February 19th, 2018

Thoughtful Staff Management in Five Steps


Thoughtful Staff Management in Five Steps

Formal reports and general discussions within the academy about department or school productivity focus almost exclusively on the work of the faculty. This accounts for the attention now being paid to the chairs’ evaluations of faculty that target strategies designed to maintain high performance and, in some cases, to drive improvement. While it is difficult to argue that this approach is inappropriate, ask almost any chair how their department would fare without the support provided by their staff, and they will admit that virtually every aspect of the operation would be negatively impacted if they had less talented and motivated staff. Yet, in many departments, staff are not regularly evaluated at a depth comparable to faculty, if at all, and are rarely the recipients of opportunities to enhance and expand their skills.

Effective performance management can lead to personal development and improvement in performance. It provides the opportunity to identify changes needed in the job description. It may also lead to identifying and acknowledging staff contributions that were previously overlooked, allowing the supervisor to identify individual aspirations and perhaps discover new talents from which the department may benefit. In situations where resources are scarce, it is an opportunity to express appreciation and provide recognition for the important work that the staff contribute to the mission of the department.

The five-step process outlined below provides suggestions for a process that will generate positive reactions from staff.


1. Clearly establish the job responsibilities.

This requires that both parties share information, ask questions, and seek clarity at the beginning of the performance cycle and throughout the year.


2. Both parties need to calibrate and establish a common frame of reference for the behavioral expectations that underlie the job responsibilities.

For instance, the department’s fiscal officer might have budget reports as one job responsibility. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to express behaviorally what it means to meet expectations for that duty. The behavioral expectation may include a statement of frequency of delivered reports (i.e., quarterly reports) and include a statement about the quality/accuracy of the reports (i.e., reports are generated with few if any mistakes). Developing criteria and standards that are clearly understood will allow individuals to more effectively self-regulate behavior to meet those goals.


3. Monitor and collect performance indicators.

Again, both parties are responsible for routinely assessing performance against the goals and cataloguing examples of success and/or failure to meet goals. This is especially important for staff positions where the outcomes of the work are not readily seen by the supervisor (e.g., number of IT issues addressed by an IT team). In these situations, we encourage supervisors to collect performance feedback or evidence from others that staff members may work with. For instance, your fiscal officer may work directly with a campus office that may be able to provide meaningful feedback about the staff member’s performance. The point here is that a fuller conversation about performance over the year can only happen if the supervisor has evidence of behavior across the year.


4. Evaluate performance prior to the interview.

It is recommended that both the supervisor and the employee individually complete a performance assessment form. This encourages the employees to spend time thinking about their performance and preparing for the interview. It also provides the employee the opportunity to have some voice in the process. Research strongly supports the importance of voice for ensuring perceptions of procedural justice and fair treatment. Finally, if the supervisor see the self-assessment before the interview, they can preidentify areas of agreement or disagreement.


5. The interview.

The interview often generates anxiety for both parties. However, if the steps above have been followed, and both parties have actively communicated throughout the year, the anxiety should be mitigated to a great degree. However, supervisors should consider these suggestions before the meeting:

  • Both supervisors and staff should prepare for and formulate their goals for the meeting.
  • The supervisor should ensure that there is ample, uninterrupted time for the meeting.
  • Start with the self-assessment. Through active listening, the chair/supervisor may gain information that could adjust perceptions and create avenues for follow-up questions.
  • Make sure that feedback focuses on specific examples and behaviors. Using generalities or focusing on personal characteristics is counterproductive and raises defensiveness.
  • The supervisor should be prepared to offer developmental support for high-performing staff as well as appropriate support for those needing improvement.
  • It is important that the supervisor maintain emotional equilibrium.

Staff in our academic departments are professionals, and treating them as such, including providing them with thorough, fair performance reviews along with help in improving or expanding skills, can boost morale and may enhance department productivity.


Jane Williams is associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives, associate professor, and former interim chair of psychology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.

Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.

Reprinted from “Enhancing a Valuable Asset: Positives of Thoughtful Staff Management” in Academic Leader 32.12(2016)4,5 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.