Promoting Trust through Effective Advising Administration

Jeffrey L. McClellan, Frostburg State University


In business, one frequently hears that the best way to take care of a customer is to take care of the people who serve the customer. While the notion of students as customers may not be widely accepted in higher education, the need for advisers to serve them well is paramount. Furthermore, as the quality of advising is dependent on the quality of the relationship that exists between advisers and students, trust is an essential contributor to effective advising. So, if the common refrain just cited has any semblance of truth to it, then the establishment of trusting relationships between advisers and advising administrators is likewise essential. This article explores the critical role of trust in establishing such relationships by defining trust and addressing how advising administrators can promote the development of trusting relationships.

Defining Trust

Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, and Camerer defined trust as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another” (1998, p. 395). Furthermore, trust typically comes in two forms: cognitive trust, which is based on logical conclusions regarding the trustworthiness of another, and affective trust, which is based more on emotional and intuitive perceptions of trustworthiness (Chan, Taylor, & Markham, 2008; Costigan, Ilter, & Berman, 1998; Rousseau et al., 1998). In addition to these logical and emotional foundations for trust, trust has also been found to be dependent upon the interactional frequency and relationship length, effective information sharing, value congruence, interpersonal confidence associated with assessments of another’s integrity, credibility, competence, and/or character, openness, concern for others based on loyalty, caring, and/or benevolence, predictability/consistency, self-sacrificial behaviors, shared meaning and contribution goals, appreciative and respectful interaction, perceived similarity, emotional competence, positive social interaction, and physical touch (Bar-On, Maree, & Elias, 2007; Bass & Riggio, 2006; Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Cadwell & Clapham, 2003; Cameron, 2008; Costigan et al., 1998; Covey, 2004; Galford & Drapeau, 2002; Goleman, 2004; Heifetz, 1994; Hosmer, 1995; Johnson & Grayson, 2005; Kramer, 2009; Lyman, 2003; Rousseau et al., 1998; Schindler & Thomas, 1993; Shoorman, Mayer, & Davis, 2007; Thomas, Zollin, & Hartman, 2009; Willemyns, Gallois, & Callan, 2003). Researchers further suggest that perceived competence and integrity are particularly significant predictors of trust in work environments (Schindler & Thomas, 1993).

Organizational factors that predict trust include the existence of risk and interdependence, empowerment-oriented and inclusive structures and processes, high cooperation vs. competition, and limited control mechanisms that delimit trust (Rousseau et al., 1998), (Bass & Riggio, 2006; Deutsch, 1960; Lyman, 2003; Shoorman et al., 2007). In contrast, the following organizational factors tend to diminish organizational trust: cultural mistrust, scarce resources, lack of job security, and excessive political activities (Willemyns et al., 2003).

The resulting outcomes of increased trust in the work environment include: leader-follower commitment, improved performance and productivity, organizational openness and employee involvement, increased citizenship behaviors, improved problem solving, effective conflict resolution and negotiation, stronger group identification, and diminished turnover (Barnes, 1981; Bass & Riggio, 2006; Costigan et al., 1998; Lewicki, 2006; Rousseau et al., 1998; Thomas et al., 2009). Thus trust is a significant contributor to organizational success.

Advising Administration and Trust

Clearly trust in personal and professional contexts is important. NACADA’s monograph on advising administration suggested “the capacity to engage effectively with others and develop solid leader-follower relations relies on the establishment of trust” (McClellan, 2011a, p. 153). However, very little has been written about the role of trust in relation to advising administration and leadership. Some literature exists regarding the need to establish organizational trust with institutional and external stakeholders in advising, including parents (Spindler, 2008) and within multicultural centers (Harding, 2009). These works suggest that collaboration with external partners (Robbins & Zarges, 2011) are central to the process of trust formation. Beyond these limited references, however, the discussion of trust in relation to advising administration is limited.

Developing Trust

Clearly, the academic literature on trust in advising administration is lacking. Nonetheless, valuable insights and recommendations can be provided to advising administrators based on the broader literature on trust.

Of particular importance are the style and practices used by advising administrators as leaders. In relation to styles, the servant leadership and/or transformational leadership within an organization appear to contribute to an increase in both leader and organizational trust (Bass & Riggio, 2006; Joseph & Winston, 2005). Furthermore, in a study of the differences in trust fostered by different types of leaders, “self-less benefactors” and “authentic” leaders fostered significantly higher levels of trust than did ideological leaders or disciplinarians in public schools and business firms in China and Taiwan (Farh, Liang, Chou, & Cheng, 2008). These styles of leadership are characterized by high levels of listening, integrity-based interaction, concern for followers, relational leadership practices, and effective organizational processes (Bass & Riggio, 2006; George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007; Greenleaf, 2002; McClellan, 2009b; Sipe & Frick, 2009; Smith, Montagno, & Kuzmenko, 2004; Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2003). Furthermore, one of the most effective methods for engaging in trust building in the workplace, which is consistent with all of these models of leadership, involves the use of personal management interviews and/or employee coaching practices.

Personal management interviews (PMIs) are performance- and development-oriented conversations that take place on a regular basis between employees and supervisors. These interviews consist of regular, private dialogues between the employee and supervisor focused on performance improvement and professional development (Boss, 2000). Typically, these interviews begin with reporting on action items from previous meetings and then address items such as “performance goals, information sharing, interpersonal issues, time management problems, personal concerns or problems, feedback on performance” and other similar issues (Latiff, 2003, p. 2). These interviews significantly contribute to performance as well as improved morale, trust, and engagement (Boss, 2000; Cameron, 2008). Furthermore, PMIs are inherently similar to leadership coaching practices (Goldsmith, Lyons, & Freas, 2000; Skiffington & Zeus, 2002; Whitmore, 1996), which contribute to a trusting climate (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).

In addition to coaching practices and PMIs, leaders can actively promote a climate and culture of trust by establishing a shared purpose, vision, and values. These can be developed through dialogic group processes characterized by community. As Sankar (2003) explained:

The underlying value system of an organization cannot be managed in the traditional way. Issuing an authoritative directive, for example, has little or no impact on an organization’s values system. Organizational values are developed and reinforced primarily through values based leadership, a relationship between leader and followers that is based on shared, strongly internalized values that are advocated and acted upon by the leader. (p. 46)

As leaders engage in relational dialogue with those they lead regarding the purpose for their work, the vision they hold, and the values to which they wish to adhere collectively, a mutual sense of identity develops that facilitates trust. In addition, this lays the groundwork for creating a culture of trust, upon which is built additional principles and practices.

With regard to promoting trust-based cultures, Thomas et al. (2009) clearly articulated the importance of providing open and honest communication that ensures timeliness, accuracy, and usefulness of the information conveyed. Shoorman et al. (2007) discussed how an excessively strong system of controls may actually impede trust. Lyman (2003) outlined the importance of promoting respect and fair treatment. Melohn (1983) suggested leaders focus on quality, recognize people’s efforts,  share the wealth, hire carefully, care about people, help them in any way possible, and properly delegate decision making, authority, and responsibility. Finally, Rogers and Riddle provided the following list of principles for encouraging trust among team members: “maintain one another’s self-esteem,” “support and praise one another,” “keep sensitive information confidential,” “avoid gossip or unfair criticism,” and “appreciate one another’s skills and differences” (n.d., p. 15).

Bellingham (2003) offered an effective approach to developing an ethical culture and suggested the following foundational principles and practices underlie the promotion of organizations that foster trust: “a tradition of strong values and ethics,” “a belief at the top in the strategic importance of integrity,” “leadership modeling and commitment,” the development of “explicit statements of values and beliefs, such as codes of ethics and standards of business conduct,” “active solicitation of support from managers and employees” resulting in a common view that ethics is a cultural issue (p. 82). As leaders engage in and promote these principles and practices, they lay a foundation for trust.

The next step is to embed the values and ethical standards of the organization into the processes, policies, and procedures thereof. This is accomplished by ensuring that procedures and systems within the organization reflect espoused values and beliefs. Administrators achieve this by frequently asking questions within organizational decision-making and problem-solving processes, such as: “if we really lived according to our value for service, quality, fairness, etc., how would this impact our specific organizational processes.” Such inquiry can be accomplished informally or as part of a formal values audit. Serious and frequent reflection on these questions or audit results can lead to dramatic changes in the way advising is structured (McClellan, 2009a). In identifying processes for improvement, particular attention should be given to the “five crucial areas that directly impact the level of trust people have in the organization,” which include the organization’s vision, values, compensation system, work environment, and personnel decisions (Rogers & Riddle, n.d.). For example, performance evaluations are frequently held on an annual basis and are almost purely evaluative. If an advising office is truly committed to the development of its staff and serving students through continuous improvement, developmental interviews, such as the PMIs discussed previously, would likely be more consistent with these values. Furthermore, these interviews would likely incorporate conversations about not only objective performance, but also values-based behaviors.

In addition to analysis and redesign of organizational process, specific emphasis should be placed on hiring and training employees based on values-oriented and values-based behaviors (Bellingham, 2003). As McClellan (2009a) explained,

New employees cannot be forced to espouse and activate values; thus, carefully designing the hiring process and the adviser training process to involve screening for and reinforcing values affiliated with those espoused and activated within the department is critical to effective values management. Behavioral interviewing helps by focusing on scenarios that bring values-oriented decision making to the surface and addressing the values people hold and how they demonstrate them. Training that includes storytelling, values assessments, and panel discussions on the importance and content of the values documents can help to reinforce the values effective hires already espouse. In addition, supervisors should engage in values-oriented coaching or incorporate mentoring programs in the first few months to help advisers work through early values conflicts and challenges.

Bellingham’s (2003) final recommendation included establishing “multiple upward and downward communication channels” and “broad monitoring of ethics goals” (p. 82). If leaders wish to truly create trust-oriented cultures, they must communicate this expectation, measure progress in this area, and recognize and respond to challenges to trust as they occur. As Sankar (2003) summarized, “From the perspective of integrity, the task of ethics management is to define and give life to an organization’s guiding values, to create an environment that supports ethically sound behavior, and to instill a sense of shared accountability among employees” (p. 49).

In addition to these trust-building efforts, leaders must carefully avoid mental models, behaviors, and systems that delimit trust. Barnes (1981) identified three assumptions that contribute to distrust. These include the belief that important issues naturally fall into two opposing camps, exemplified by either/or thinking; second, that hard data and facts are better than what appear to be soft ideas and speculation, exemplified in the “hard drives out soft” rule; and finally, that the world in general is an unsafe place, exemplified by a person’s pervasive mistrust of the universe around him or her (Barnes, 1981, p. 108).

While these beliefs can at times and in certain situations be useful and necessary, as core guiding mental models, they can lead to behaviors that damage trust. Such behaviors include communicating poorly, sending mixed messages, failing to take responsibility for action, demonstrating arrogance, focusing primarily on self-interest, deceiving others, violating agreements, dealing unfairly with others (i.e., passing judgments without checking facts), making excuses or blaming others, behaving disrespectfully, demonstrating envy, neglecting employee development, holding grudges, refusing to help others, being stingy with rewards, not standing up for principles and responding to ethical/values violations (Bernthal, 2006; Galford & Drapeau, 2002; Sankar, 2003). Thus advisers and advising administrators should remain vigilant to avoid such actions.

Despite efforts to avoid breaches of trust, however, some failures will likely occur. When they do, the way leaders respond is significant. Research suggests the following behaviors are central to rebuilding trust in organizational settings. First, leaders should openly listen to the concerns of those whose trust has been violated. Second, they need to admit when wrongdoing has occurred and apologize sincerely for any actions taken resulting in negative impacts. Even if the actions were not wrong, a sincere apology for these impacts should be offered. Third, they should take suggestions for improvement and involve key stakeholders in decision making regarding solutions. Fourth, they should demonstrate accountability for addressing the situation. Throughout the process, leaders need to ensure they both act with courage and integrity and demonstrate respect and concern for others (Poulson, 2003; Rogers & Riddle, n.d.).

With regard to promoting trusting relationships between advisers and students, advising administrators should be careful to structure advising processes to allow relationships between students and advisers to develop over time (Hagstrom, Skovholt, & Rivers, 1997). This is because “trusting relationships can occur within the context of advising centers if the student is assigned to one advisor and maintains an ongoing relationship with that educator” (Ender & Wilkie, 2000, p. 137). Frequent changes in advisers must, therefore, be avoided. When changes do occur, they should be handled carefully and intentionally.

Second, given that trust is particularly important “when people are diverse and do not know each other,” advisers should be trained to deal with issues of trust and diversity so as to meet the needs of the diverse student bodies they serve (Bordas, 2007). Finally, teambuilding activities, effective meetings, training opportunities, and team-oriented work groups can and should be used to promote more of a team orientation within the often diffuse work setting of advising (McClellan, 2011b; Swenson, 2000). There is some evidence that such activities should involve a focus on dyadic interaction, however, leaders should exercise care in doing so across gender boundaries (Costigan et al., 1998).

Finally, it is important that advising administrators engage in trust building with external partners both on and off campus (Harding, 2009; Robbins & Zarges, 2011; Spindler, 2008). This involves analyzing and understanding the systemic connections between these partners and the advising office or function and actively promoting strong connections through interpersonal and intergroup interaction across these entities (Anderson & Johnson, 1997; McClellan, 2011b; Senge, 1990). Regular meetings similar to PMIs between organizational representatives, either leaders or assigned liaisons with occasional full-group interaction can go a long way to promote trust.


In conclusion, trust matters immensely. It is a major predictor of quality relationships and organizational effectiveness, both of which are critical components of effective advising programs. Consequently, there is much to be gained by administrators as they come to understand the concept of trust and implement leadership practices and processes that promote high levels of trust in their work environments.


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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey L. McClellan, Frostburg State University

Jeffrey L. McClellan is an assistant professor of management at Frostburg State University. He can be reached at

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