Giving the Gift of Positive Feedback

By Ryan Manning — It’s that time of the year again. Shopping online promises delivery by December 24th. I can’t go anywhere without hearing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or seeing an ad with a polar bear in a sweater drinking a soda.  I suppose some parts of the country have snow, though we in the DC Metro area have been enjoying perfectly cool temperatures. Everything smells like vanilla and cinnamon as if the whole world is freshly-baked. For most people these are all signs of all the holiday hullabaloo. For me, it means two things: College Basketball is in full swing, and it’s crunch time for this young Residence Life professional.

If you couldn’t tell by that slight rant, I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas (aside from the Catholic part). But I’m jumping off the bitter bus, since this post is really not at all about Christmas. To sum it up, while most people are thinking about pine trees and sugar cookies, I’m focused on RA evaluations.

At the end of every semester, my major responsibility is to prepare performance evaluations for the resident assistant staff that I supervise and conduct individual meetings with each of them to talk about their performance over the semester and ways to become even more successful in the following one. For me, there’s a lot that goes into writing an evaluation for a staff member. The department I work in is really big on assessment, so I receive a lot of data that I need to compile, from resident feedback, peer feedback, self-reflections, and programming reports. Since I’ve only been able to work with this staff for 2 months as opposed to 4, this has been really helpful in seeing the bigger picture of how others see an RA’s performance. Sure, this is a lot of work, but the more effort I put into preparing an evaluation, the more the RA will hopefully get out of it.

Speaking of the RAs, this time of the year is stressful enough, with final examinations approaching, projects wrapping up, and making plans for end of the semester community activities with their residents. So, despite being pretty familiar with my supervision style and already acknowledging my laid-back yet developmental approach, the majority of my staff still seems to be far more nervous than necessary about the evaluation process. One RA even came into my office this week for a regular meeting, and, when she found out that evaluations were happening next week, shouted “You mean I have to be nervous for a whole other week! I don’t think I can take this.”

Some of our students have never had a job before, and if they have, it probably hasn’t involved the degree of responsibility of the RA position, or the highly involved and invested supervisor. So, chances are, they have never gone through a formal evaluation before. So, I suppose some apprehension is appropriate. But here’s the thing, there’s nothing to be nervous about. For most, the evaluation process should be relatively painless, even pretty uplifting. With the right supervisor, an evaluation should never bring you to tears, or even be at all surprisingly (at least not surprising in a negative way). In my opinion, the formal, end-of-semester evaluation is simply a compilation of a semester’s worth of conversations, so in the vast majority of cases, an RA should have been informed about areas for improvement as they came up, to allow for an opportunity to exhibit growth. In that way, the evaluation meeting shouldn’t be a surprise, but more of a summary.

What I really enjoy about the evaluation meeting is what happens after the summary. After you and the staff member have been able to go over the evaluation document and discuss different areas of it, then comes the opportunity to create a development plan. For me, this is sort of a multi-step process. We begin by looking at the next semester as a whole: what big events does the RA have coming up (a large program for a student group, a notoriously difficult class, beginning a new internship, studying for a graduate school exam, etc.) and setting some overarching goals for the semester: becoming a stronger leader on the staff, finding more opportunities for involvement on campus, reaching a better balance of work and academics and social life. Then you move down to a more micro level: creating specific action items to help reach these goals and setting expectations for both the RA and the supervisor to support the RA in meeting these goals. I typically end the conversation with a discussion about motivation, and how I can ensure that staff are feeling motivated throughout the second semester, where exhaustion and burnout are significant possibilities.

Overall, the evaluation process is a learning process for everyone involved. For RAs, it involves learning how to be comfortable with taking constructive criticism, an experience they may have never had before. This comes with being able to realize that feedback is centered on one’s performance, not really the content of their character. For me, its an exercise in delivering praise paired with something less positive. More often than not, I feel more comfortable speaking with an RA about how they can grow in the position, because my strengths lie in challenging others. Where I often struggle is focusing more on what others do exceptionally and giving recognition for that.

I’m not big on giving Christmas presents, but this year I’m making myself a promise to deliver more good news to the students I supervise.

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