While in graduate school, Dr. Matthew Shupp ’00-’03m recognized an alarming trend in the field of student affairs in higher education. Within three to five years, 50 percent of new hires weren’t just changing jobs—they were leaving the field altogether. Shupp said research indicates that this trend has continued.
“This is your career, you’ve chosen to do this,” he said. “To have half of them leave, something is amiss.”
Now an assistant professor in the Counseling and College Student Personnel program, of which he graduated, Shupp has dedicated years of research to exploring and changing that trend. He’s found that much of that change needs to come from the top down by focusing on supervisory strategies.
“It’s not all a supervisory issue, but that is key in retaining professionals,” he said.
In October, Shupp headed one of three workshops at the Ireland International Conference on Education (IICE) in Dublin, where he presented “Synergistic Supervision: A Cross- cultural Perspective.” The presentation was based on his dissertation, which centered on Winston and Creamer’s model of synergistic supervision.
This model includes several tenets: joint collaboration, two-way communication, and a focus on competency and goals for the growth of both employees and the institution. His workshop was twofold: providing context on the importance of synergistic supervision in the field and offering ways to make it relevant in the workplace.
The IICE conference attracts academics and professionals from around the world to advance theory and practice in education. In his workshop, Shupp stressed that the future of education depends on properly training entry-level staff members, which often lies in the hands of supervisors.
Shupp said that supervisors can create barriers between themselves and supervisees. Employees lack trust in a supervisor who shows no vulnerability, is not quick to self-disclose, or does not share information. “Some supervisors become so task driven that they forget about people,” he said.
However, Shupp said supervisors have the ability to change the culture at work. For example, some on-boarding processes are better than others. In one situation, a new, entry-level employee might be stranded at their desk on the first day without any guidance to navigate their new environment, he said. That person might feel alienated and insecure. When applying principles of synergistic supervision, a supervisor can develop inclusive practices that create a welcoming environment for new employees.
“A reoccurring question from supervisors is, ‘How do we make time for this?’ They are searching for a sustainable model based on the amount of work they have to do and the few resources they have. But imagine what will happen if we don’t take the time to do these things. ...We need to create an environment where people feel valued.”
Shupp has since expanded his work and is collaborating with researchers out of Buffalo,New York. They are developing a model for inclusive supervisory practices based on Pope, Reynolds, and Mueller’s concept of multicultural competence in student affairs.
This added layer to the research developed after one particularly challenging summer semester, Shupp said. His students were affected by and reacting to a number of national and international real-life events. Shupp realized he had to step away from the course content and address the feelings circulating in the classroom.
“I had to find a way to balance the curriculum and life events,” he said. “We have to figure out how to identify important world views and interact with others. I try, but I don’t always get it right. It requires some vulnerability to do better next time, and learn from your previous mistakes.”
As part of the expanded research, the group developed an extensive survey to determine how supervisees view their supervisors.
Survey results showed that employees welcome evaluations as a way to measure goals and make improvements. They appreciate supervisors who check in regularly to ask how employees are doing. They also prefer supervisors who value their input and allow the employee’s voice to be heard. One of the most common themes expressed throughout the survey was the desire for supervisors to create a safe and welcoming work environment.
“We’re creating a model that focuses on inclusive supervisory practices,” Shupp said. “It’s important for supervisors to have multicultural competence—to understand the multiple lenses through which people view the world.”
Their next step is to continue analyzing their data and eventually develop best practices that supervisors can use to enhance their supervising. Shupp said this will allow them to create inclusive, honest, constructive conversations with supervisees.
“We want supervisors to emerge on the other side to be stronger and more empathetic.”