Three Simple Secrets to Staff Engagement

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October 31, 2011 by pmilleredu

Staff engagement can be as simple as it can be elusive. We all know what it looks like, what it doesn’t look like and can oftentimes do a decent job of describing it. Where we get into trouble is when we define staff engagement with too many factors that cannot be measured, seen or really changed at all (i.e. the mysterious idea of “ownership”).

What is “ownership” anyway? It is literal ownership of the direction of your work? Is it being concerned and invested into the outcome of your work? (Again more things we cannot actually see or influence. You can’t make someone care more). There are some ways to define ownership in a  useful and actionable way but at that point we have created behaviors that we should focus on and abandon this idea of “ownership”. I should also note that I do use the term “ownership” and need to get over that myself, but I digress.

If we look at staff engagement from the other end, and look at truly miserable jobs this can shed some light for us. This is exactly what Patrick Lencioni does in “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job”. He looks at staff engagement from the perspective of what it looks like when it is not there, then works backwards to what is missing.

If you want to increase staff engagement you need three things.

1. RAs need to be able to see progress for their hard work. They need to be able to see that what they do has accomplished something.

2. RAs need to be able to know that they make a difference in someone’s life, and not just know that they do, but whose lives they impact. They also need to be reminded of this regularly.

3. RAs need to feel like they matter and are known as people and not just RAs. This is one area we tend to excel at in Student Affairs.


So what can you do to accomplish each of these three things? Let’s start with the first. When an RA has no way of knowing what they have accomplished this can easily lead to burn-out. Being an RA is a difficult position and one that is often thankless and more to the point immeasurable. It can be easy to get dogged down in seeing roommate conflicts, documenting residents and dealing with crises and not seeing your work be anything more than a series of band-aids. We as supervisors know that this is not the case. We know and have seen actual change in a person due to their relationship with their RA. While living the day-to-day life of  an RA though, it can be difficult to see these changes occur because they do happen overtime. Therefore we need to add some measurement to the RA position.

The key for these measurable aspects of the position are that: they must be under the RAs sphere of influence (they need to be able to see how their work can change the results), they need to be relevant to the RA (while some departmental wide measurements can be useful, allowing each  specific RA to come up with 1-2 is useful), and they need to be continuous (one-time complex assessments can be helpful, but these measures are meant to show progress for the RA to increase their engagement). Depending on your programming model you can use attendance at programs, or  if you use the You+Two model that Delaware uses (shameless plug) you can use student submitted proposals for programs. Other measures can include number of doors open on the floor (if an open community is a particular priority of your RAs), or the RA being able to identify a particular number of talents of residents, or the number of conversations they have with residents each week. Depending on your departmental, building and staff goals and areas of focus  these will look different for each of us. The important part is that they are easily measurable by the RA and speak to something that is relevant to them and towards their residents’ success.


For the second part, RAs need to know that they make a difference in the lives of others. This is the easiest for us to see, but can be difficult for RAs to truly identify. We know that RAs make a huge difference in the lives of three groups of people. They influence the residents most of all with their role modeling, assistance with crises, mediation and everything in between. They need to be reminded of both the long process of student development and their how their impact fits into that development. Try sharing stories of how your RA really helped you as a student, or explain some basic student development theory and what those stages of development look like , explaining how what they do impacts change. Oftentimes students apply to be an RA because of the impact their RA had (both good and bad), and having your staff share their reasons and their experience as a student can help them see the connection between their work and the success of their residents.

RAs also impact their piers. Through their skill-sets, connections on campus and experience working with people they will no doubt have an impact on their friend groups. I myself answered questions about campus and helped friends through crises using the skills I learned and used as an RA. Heck, I have even used these skills to help family and my fiance.

The third and sometimes hardest one to talk about, is the impact RAs have on us, their supervisors. We often recognize RAs for a job well done, but how often have we told them directly how much their efforts have made a difference in our lives? I can think of many times in the past week when my staff have not only made my life easier but have reminded me why I am in this profession and why this work is so important. My staff have such large hearts and work so hard and while I tend to recognize that work and the impact it has had on their students, I forget to let them how how much their hard work has meant to me personally.


For the third “secret” to staff engagement, we already tend to do this well. We know our RAs as people and tend to be closer to them than most supervisors in other fields will be. The part where we need to challenge ourselves is in combining this with the RA position. If we spend any amount of time thinking about we can make connections to any major, any hobbies, any goals to the RA position, we can come up with some very unique and truly rewarding experiences for our staff.


The challenges in implementing these three simple ‘Secrets” is our own daily routine. When a crisis happens or that parent calls, or that report is needed for that committee that is planning that event next month or whatever else pops up, we tend to put that fire out first. What tends to take the back-burner are things like staff engagement. I myself am as guilty of this as the next person and once I come up with that magic solution I will certainly let everyone know until then I will just need to keep these three little “secrets” in mind and do my best to keep them a priority.


I have no doubt that with more meaningful measurable factors, being reminded of the impact their hard work has on others (including supervisors), and by tying in their personal interests into the position any staff will become more engaged and accomplish this elusive idea of ownership.


As always, Thanks for reading!

Paul Miller…


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