November 2013 Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 6
November 2013

Managing in All Directions: Up, Down, and Sideways

Molly E. Ward & Jill Zambito

Supervision is a critical part of student affairs professionals’ daily work, and yet administrators rarely speak about the topic or dedicate time to teach or learn about supervisory skills. “Despite recognition of the important role supervision plays, it has received relatively little attention in student affairs research and literature,” authors Susan Stock-Ward and Mary Javorek reported in their 2003 NASPA Journal article. It is essential that practitioners examine supervision and carve out time to improve these skills if they want to grow asCC - Managing professionals and better support employees.

Generally speaking, employees are promoted into supervisory roles without much training. As a result, new managers sometimes pretend like they are more knowledgeable and confident in the area of supervision than they actually are for fear of being treated like a person who has never supervised. “Some appear excessively arrogant. Others wear their self-doubt on their sleeves,” explained management consultant Carol Walker in a 2002 Harvard Business Review article.

In the absence of supervisory-specific training, “Supervisors are likely to rely on their own past supervision experiences, good or bad, as their model,” Stock-Ward and Javorek found. What if the previous professional experiences involved horrible supervision? What happens if the previous supervisory experiences were employee-specific? Relying solely on past experiences could be dangerous for both the supervisor and the employee.

Supervision takes time and energy and requires attention and patience. Supervisors must realize that each employee is motivated, receives feedback, and requires support in different ways. The book Beginning Your Journey: A Guide for New Professionals in Student Affairs asserted: “Helping shape the professional and personal growth of another person is not a responsibility to be taken lightly.” The most successful supervisors are ones who understand their employees’ needs and do their best to accommodate those needs. Good supervision allows employees to be their best, involves consistent feedback, and provides both the supervisee and the employer with clear direction, communication, and support. This means managing up to get the support needed from one’s own supervisor, managing down to successfully direct subordinates, and managing sideways, effectively delegating tasks.

Managing Up

As employees take on supervisory roles, the relationship they have with their own supervisor becomes increasingly important. Walker explained: “Most organizations promote employees into managerial positions based on their technical competence … assuming their rookie managers will somehow learn critical management skills by osmosis. Some rookies do, to be sure, but … most need more help. In the absence of comprehensive and intensive coaching … the rookie manager’s boss plays a key role.”

To maximize this relationship, the subordinate must “manage up.” In their 1993 Harvard Business Review article, professors John Gabarro and John Kotter explained: “We are using the term [‘managing your boss’] to mean the process of consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the company.” It is important to understand what your boss needs from you and just as important for her/him to understand what you need as well. When approaching this relationship, employees can ask questions to confidently know how to best communicate with a supervisor, learn how the manager wishes to be contacted, and in which types of circumstances the supervisor needs to be involved. Staff members who are most effective, seek out information regarding their supervisors’ “goals and problems and pressures,” Gabarro and Kotter stated. Managing Up

Not every employee has a perfect relationship with their supervisor. No matter the case, it is important to be mindful that the supervisory relationship involves mutual dependence, Gabarro and Kotter advised. Both parties need each other to achieve ultimate success. Not every supervisory situation will be perfect—in fact, most are not—but there are many ways in which an employee can help direct the relationship. In this process, employees need to teach their supervisor about their work preferences, leadership style, and the ways in which they best receive feedback, for example.

A supervisor can serve a number of different roles in an employee’s professional experience. Supervisors evaluate employees’ performance, take action on their behalf, and provide consistent guidance. Staff members ought to make the most of this relationship by expecting a supervisor to serve in various capacities and asking them to do so when needed. Employees should not only expect consistent feedback; they should also ask for feedback. For example, after a large event, the implementation of a new initiative, or general performance, expect a boss to provide their thoughts, and certainly request feedback if it is heard infrequently.

A supervisor could be a wonderful advocate for the employee, for the staff, and for the department. Supervisors want to be helpful, but if employees fail to provide direction, there may be missed opportunities for training. For union and activities professionals, important areas in which to respectfully ask for help could include finances, human resources, or staff creation. Additionally, supervisors have the opportunity to help new managers navigate the political environment of a college campus. Supervisors often understand how or why decisions are made and can assist newer managers with better responding to challenging situations based on that knowledge. Whether dealing with politically motivated decision making or career advancement, supervisors often know how to navigate systems and can rely on previous experiences.

In addition to action, employees expect support from their supervisor. That support may take the shape of a sounding board, shadowing for professional development, encouragement, or assistance at a late-night or weekend event. In whatever form, an employee must invite the support, accept the help, and demonstrate gratitude. Not every supervisor excels in this area but a simple “thank you” will convey appreciation and encourage repeat behavior.

Supervisors have much to learn from their employees. Through the supervisory relationship, a supervisor can learn how to best relate to their staff member and in the process get the most out of that employee as a contributing team member. Additionally, supervisors can learn how to improve their leadership and delegation skills from a staff member who is more comfortable in this particular arena. This especially tends to be the case when supervising millennials. In her book Generation Me, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, prepares supervisors from other generations to be mindful of working with millennials who tend to want to achieve success overnight and promotions within a year. Twenge explained that one can expect employees from this generation to work hard “but even harder if they are praised and appreciated.” Millennial employees “will feel free to make suggestions if they think it will improve things,” the author stated. This practice is something all can note.

Managing Down

As in managing up, supervisors must realize their role in “managing down” involves problem solving with others, allowing staff members the time needed to process ideas, preventing pitfalls, and removing of some campus barriers. All of this takes time, much more time than a person likely anticipates. This often means that a person must dedicate time on a daily basis to assist employees, to supervision, and to human resource management in addition to the other duties involved with the role.

Beginning Your Journey asserted that while there are many roles supervisors assume, they must first decide “how much autonomy and direction to give each staff member, and, regardless of experience, many managers will find this challenging.” When thinking of other basic supervision premises, another to consider is that if you expect the best from your employees, you are likely to get just that. Manging DownSometimes supervisors lose faith in employees because of negative previous experiences, but everyone makes mistakes and deserves opportunities to learn and grow. Keeping this in mind, there are some basic yet key items to remember when supervising:

Organization Skills
Managers must balance the needs of many people, so successfully organizing and prioritizing is essential. Strong organizational skills will help a manager ensure that resources are allocated appropriately and that responsibilities have been distributed evenly within the team.

Communication Skills

Managers need to be able to effectively communicate on all levels within the college or university. It is imperative that employees feel that the direction of the organization and departmental goals have been communicated clearly.


A strong manager knows how to motivate both a team and individual employees. Strong managers are particularly good at helping an employee see the importance of their role within the institution.

Leadership Skills

A competent and successful manager must serve as the leader of the team or unit. Working with employees to accomplish the task at hand and doing whatever it takes to be successful will help build trust with employees.

Utilize the Right Management Style

Successful managers work with each employee as an individual and create management styles that work for each employee. For example, it is best to take a hands-off approach with employees who want more autonomy. Managers should strive to know their team well enough to develop techniques for managing each individual uniquely and effectively.

Be Authentic
While a supervisor may take on different approaches depending on the employee, it is important to remain authentic in a general supervisory style while respecting the needs of employees.

Safe Environments
Supervisors are responsible for creating, and maintaining safe environments for their employees to encourage honest and trusting relationships.

Set Clear Expectations

It is easy to assume that staff members will know how to prioritize or problem solve, but in actuality, everyone requires some direction.

Consistent Feedback

Strong supervisors must be consistent and fair, especially when holding employees accountable. Providing consistent feedback in a timely manner is critical. The annual evaluation should not include any surprises as it relates to employee performance. The evaluation should merely recap the employee’s performance in writing for the entire year. Supervisors must address issues as they occur or they will run the risk of being ineffective.

Accept Imperfection

Know that employees will make mistakes along the way, as will supervisors.

Taking these steps will help supervisors build trust with each person on the team. According to Walker, “Your staff members don’t necessarily have to like you, but they do need to trust you.” And micromanagement is the antithesis of trust.

In the 2007 issue of Contract Management, author Kenneth Fracaro defined “micromanagement” as “a management style in which a supervisor closely observes or controls the work of an employee. … In contrast to giving general instructions on smaller tasks while supervising larger concerns, the micromanager monitors and assesses every step.” Micromanagement is one of the most common management failures. Micromanagers often prefer directing employees rather than coaching employees, which can be detrimental to the professional development of those employees.

Few supervisors would describe themselves as micromanagers, realizing the term has a stigma. However, they might have such tendencies even if they call it something else. In a blog post on LinkedIn, Steven Sinofsky, former president of Microsoft’s Windows division, describes “micromanaging by editing” as one such trap: “critiquing, tweaking, or otherwise mucking with what is discussed or delivered, rather than stepping back and considering if we are truly improving upon the work, or if we are empowering or micromanaging.” Sinofsky says some managers take employees’ work as a starting point instead of a finished product, which can lead employees to “stop creating and focus their energies on trying to predict your editorial reaction.”

According to Fracaro, other cloaked micromanagement tendencies include describing in detail how exactly to do a job, devoting a lot of time to overseeing subordinates’ projects, being annoyed when employees make decisions without consulting you, wishing you were back in a previous lower-level job where you would be the one doing a specific project, or implementing extensive controls or checklists to monitor processes. To correct such behaviors, Fracaro recommended asking:

  • Who or what are you micromanaging? Is it an individual, several individuals, a team, a work process, a special project, or some other entity?
  • When is the micromanagement occurring? Is it ongoing or only at certain times?
  • Why are you micromanaging? Is it concern for details? increased performance pressure? your own insecurity? Lack of a trusting relationship with your employee or as a tool to terminate that individual?

Three techniques can also curb the need for micromanagement. Adopting these skills can help a supervisor lead a team of employees to success while increasing morale and motivating the office personnel.

  1. Track assignments electronically to manage productivity and evaluate the performance of employees. Use new forms of technology such as mobile or desktop applications like Evernote or Trello to monitor the responsibilities of each person on the team. These free applications allow users to track goals, to-do lists, and even snap photos of items to add into currently created lists.
  2. Have conversations with employees about communication styles and frequency. Most micromanagers feel the need to over-manage because communication is not occurring as frequently or in the style they would most like to receive it.
  3. Identify personal idiosyncrasies. Most supervisors who micromanage have a particular way they prefer items organized, labeled, or accomplished. These idiosyncrasies need to be communicated to the supervisees to allow for understanding of that particular approach. This will help the employee create documents, answer questions, or follow directions in a way that meets the supervisor’s needs. Talking about the approach the supervisor wants helps the employee anticipate the manager’s needs, adopt desired methods, and understand the manager’s reasoning.

It is imperative that supervisors learn when to diminish direct supervision and allow employees the room and space to succeed. According to Harvard Business Review guest blogger Jordan Cohen, “The knee-jerk reaction of many managers to a performance challenge is to ‘tighten the screws’ and get involved in how and when a task is done. Both practical experience and now scientific evidence tell us often a better approach is to protect the autonomy of the worker and provide high-level direction.” Employees will feel valued when allowed to work autonomously with a project or initiative and achieve completion. Strong supervisors share with employees the goals and objectives and allow the employee to determine the path to take to achieve the goals,
Sinofsky asserted.

Managing Sideways

The delegation of tasks to employees is potentially one of the most difficult challenges with which managers grapple. Most supervisors want to be successful at delegating but struggle to let go of certain tasks and responsibilities. According to a 2011 article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, “Delegation is basically a process of assigning responsibility, sharing authority, and producing accountability in organizations.”

Failing to delegate to a team can negatively affect morale and the supervisor’s ability to accomplish the work needed to achieve the bigger goal. By not delegating, supervisors become overwhelmed with detailed tasks that keep the focus off the more strategic work. Managing SidewaysA supervisor who attempts to do all the work and not delegate to the team will stunt the growth of employees, and as a result, employees will feel underutilized and devalued.

To be successful in delegation, the supervisor must be able to articulate what exactly needs to be done and who would be successful in bringing the task to completion, researchers asserted in Interdisciplinary Journal of Comtemporary Research. It is important to manage personal expectations as well as employee expectations. Making expectations clear provides the entire team a vision for the task. A significant part of delegating is learning to trust the employees involved. Cohen predicted: “If a manager describes the long-term outcome he wants, rather than dictating specific actions, the employee can decide how to arrive there and preserve his perceived sense of control, cognitive function, and ultimately improve his productivity.” The employee’s perception of not being in control will lead to a decrease in productivity.

According a post on Instigator Blog, “The secret to successfully delegating work is to not just make people feel like the work is their own, but to actually give them ownership.” After tasks are delegated the supervisor needs to check in and make sure that progress is being made. Most employees enjoy providing updates on the status of the tasks being worked on, and checking in on employees prevents supervisors from becoming micromanagers while still allowing the supervisor to be informed and supportive.

Part of becoming a successful supervisor is learning not only how to delegate but who to delegate to and when. Supervisors should consider the specific talents and skillset of each employee before assigning tasks or responsibilities. The U.S. News and World Report article “5 Ways Managers Fail at Delegating” stated: “At its core, delegating well—and finding the appropriate level of involvement at each stage—is a microcosm of good management. It’s about figuring out what needs to be done, finding the right people to do it, clearly communicating what you’re looking for, following up to ensure you’re getting results, and creating accountability.”

Delegating to employees is essential to success as a manager but learning to delegate to one’s peers is a skill every supervisor should hone. Lateral delegation is most often used when a task delegated to one person doesn’t fit their skill set and may be performed better by another person on the team. It can be difficult to delegate to peers as they have less obligation to honor any requests or propositions. When delegating to peers, identifying a tangible benefit for the other party will create a more desirable proposition.

Sometimes it’s helpful to remind everyone involved in the project that the task at hand is in the institution’s best interest and isn’t necessarily about one individual so teamwork is essential.


Student affairs professionals spend much time learning about student development theory, which supports a student’s progression, but little time focused on being a supervisor. Stock-Ward and Javorek reported: “Supervision in student affairs has the potential to facilitate individual growth, improve service, and change the nature of the entire field.” To better meet the needs of employees, though, professionals must take the time to finely tune their skills and improve as supervisors.

Increased supervisory responsibilities can prime an individual for promotions, directorships, and upper-level administration. Since few managers receive the necessary training to prepare them for assuming these roles, new supervisors often feel they are pulled in all directions without the confidence of knowing the right path to take. Being an effective manager means acquiring many skill sets and the ability to be flexible. By managing up, down, and sideways, supervisors can learn from others, create a management style that works for multiple employees, and achieve more successful working relationships.




WardMolly Ward is the director of the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life at Tulane University. Her interests include supervision, women in facilities management, and the construction of student spaces in student unions. Ward holds a BSW from the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh and an M.Ed. from the University of South Carolina.


 ZambitoJill Zambito is the director of student involvement and leadership development at Northern Illinois University where she is also a doctoral student in the adult and higher education program. She earned a B.A. from Baldwin-Wallace College and an M.S.Ed. from Colorado State University. Her professional interests include nontraditional students, students with children, supervision, and student involvement. She currently serves on the Regional Restructuring Task Force for ACUI.