Workplace Learning & Development

Promoting Employee and Organizational Growth and Development
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Understanding the Landscape


In your new role, you will need to get to know the workplace landscape. Even if you have stayed in the same workplace, your new role will bring a different view of the same landscape. What is the mission of your unit or department? How do you fit into the larger organization? What are the culture and norms of your workplace - and how do they fit with your views of the work and your supervision expectations? You will need to discover (or re-discover) your answers to these questions. We encourage you, as a new supervisor to explore, observe and understand the landscape of your workplace. This will help you to develop relationships with your employees and managers, supporting your success as a supervisor.

Let's start with the big picture.

UMass Amherst is part of a five campus system with an overall shared mission:
The University's mission is to provide an affordable and accessible education of high quality and to conduct programs of research and public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world.
As the system’s flagship campus, Amherst draws from throughout the Commonwealth, nations and the world, providing a broad undergraduate curriculum with over 100 majors, and more than 47 doctoral programs. The mission of the Amherst campus reflects the University mission in the following ways:

  • Access: For all qualified students, paying special attention to meeting the needs of students from varied social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Excellence: Maintaining a range of academic offerings comparable in quality to those offered at AAU universities.
  • Innovation: Creating new knowledge with a broad program of distinctive research. 
  • Economic development and global competitiveness: Supporting the economic development of the Commonwealth. 
  • Public service 
  • Quality of Life: Developing the human and cultural quality of life for the region. 

See University of Massachusetts Strategic Plan.


In a few words, how does your department's work promote the mission of UMass Amherst? 

  • What is your department's mission?
  • Whom do you serve?
  • What do you produce or what services do you provide?
  • Do the employees you supervise see the department's mission the same as you?

See UMass Amherst Organizational Chart [PDF]. Where do you and your department fit on this chart? 

See UMass At-A-Glance.

Uniqueness of Working in Higher Education

Every Organization Has A Culture

Culture defined: Culture is a set of rules - both written and unwritten - by which people live. It's the "way things are done around here." Rules include laws, policies, habits, behavioral guidelines, and etiquette.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst:

  • Is in the business of creating and distributing knowledge.
  • Is a large public institution with more than 5000 employees.
  • Has a unionized workforce represented by more than seven different unions.
  • Is located in a semi-rural environment.
  • Is a large institution. Things sometimes move slowly.
  • Has many rules and policies to guide supervisors.

Ways We Differ From For-Profit Businesses

We are a land grant institution. See the Report of the Task Force On The Future Of UMass Amherst [PDF].

The Land Grant Heritage: 

The Land Grant (Morrill) Act was signed into law in 1862 by President Lincoln and authorized the establishment of a land grant institution in each state. The legislation granted to each state 30,000 acres of public land for each Senator and Representative. Proceeds from the sale of these lands were to be invested in a perpetual endowment fund which would provide support for colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in each of the states. (Full Land Grant Act)

We employ faculty and student workers


  • Have long term security if they have tenure.
  • Have academic freedom to create knowledge that can be controversial.

Student employees:

  • Are short term employees. We want them to graduate and move on to other positions.
  • Work to support their education. Often, their studies are a higher priority than their job.
  • Are a crucial part of our workforce - the University could not operate without them.

Income (where $'s come from):

  • Our revenues come from several sources including taxpayers, students, research grants, and donors.


  • We are a mix of centralized and decentralized organization.
  • Technology and systems often differ from place to place in the University.

These unique aspects and characteristics shape the University culture and norms.
Each department and unit also has its own norms which continue to develop over time. Some of these norms are clearly articulated through stated rules and procedures, and others are the “unwritten rules”…that are part of “the ways things are done around here” and are learned by observing and asking questions as you spend time in the organization. As a new supervisor you will need to learn both written and unwritten rules of your organization.

For Example: Acknowledging personal events

Some departments keep birthday calendars, and make time in the workday to celebrate everyone's birthday with staff taking turns bringing a cake or organizing the event. In other offices, this is not an expectation. As a new supervisor, you may have an idea of how you think personal events should be handled. You will need to understand the current norms before you consider making changes. If you think change is needed, consulting with staff and discussing your reasons will most likely make it easier.

To supervise successfully, it is essential that you understand the organizational culture of your department. If you want to change how work is done or, at the broadest level, to affect the organization's standing in its industry, you will need to know the organizational culture and norms. Understanding the culture and, as needed or required, thoughtfully changing it, can mean the difference between attracting and retaining good employees and driving them away.


  1. What are some norms of your past work environments?
  2. What are some of the "unwritten rules" in your new work environment?

Learning the Lay of the Land

As a new supervisor or manager you will need to:

  • Understand the mission of your department and how it fits into the larger University mission.
  • Learn about your department's culture and norms.
  • Explore and understand the channels and methods for communication in your area:
  • Is it a flat organization where staff communicates across supervisory lines?
  • Is it a more traditional organization where ideas and concerns get vetted up through the reporting lines?
  • Do staff tend to communicate via email or by talking in person?
  • How quickly do people expect you to respond to requests, whether internal or external communications?
  • Are meetings planned ahead of time with a set agenda, or are they scheduled as needed?
  • Who needs to be in the loop for information sharing?

We need to understand the expectations and priorities our supervisor has for us in the position we now have, and how they see our relationship functioning, as well as the expectations of the staff we now supervise.
It is important to understand and observe the “lay of the land” from both your supervisor’s and employee’s point of view.
*Have you had conversations with your supervisor and employees about the hopes and expectations they have for you and your position?