Developing Trusting Relationships in Academic Advising: A Review of the Literature with Recommendations for Practices

  • November 13, 2014

Jeffrey L. McClellan, Frostburg State University


While much has been written about the need to define academic advising, it is generally recognized as a relational process that takes place between students and advisers (Himes, 2014; NACADA, 2003a; Schulenberg & Lindhorst, 2008). Consequently, the promotion of effective relationships and processes are both essential in advising.  A critical component of each is trust. This article focuses on trust and its relationship to advising. Consequently, this article addresses four questions: First, what is trust? Second, what is the role of trust in advising? Third, how is trust developed? Fourth, how can advisers develop trusting relationships?

What is Trust?

Based on a significant review of definitions of trust across multiple disciplines, Hosmer (1995) defined trust as:

… the expectation by one person, group, or firm of ethically justifiable behavior—that is, morally correct decisions and actions based upon ethical principles of analysis—on the part of the other person, group, or firm in a joint endeavor or economic exchange. (p. 399)

In interpersonal relations, this expectation is grounded in the confidence one has in another person that leads one to accept the risks of interacting openly with the other. It is important to note, however, “trust is not a behavior (e.g., cooperation), or a choice (e.g., taking a risk), but an underlying psychological condition that can cause or result from such actions” (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998, p. 395). This condition is, potentially, both a property of individuals as well as relationships (Schindler & Thomas, 1993; Shoorman, Mayer, & Davis, 2007); and is, therefore, an important element of human interactions that take place in context, like advising.

The Role of Trust in Advising

Time and time again, research has demonstrated one of the most significant contributors to success and retention in college is the establishment of positive relationships between students and college faculty and/or staff (Nutt, 2003). If positive relationships require trust, it should come as no surprise that within the earliest scholarly publications on advising, scholars made a strong connection between advising and trust (Crookston, 1972). As Vasher (2010) explained, “In all advising settings, … advisers seeking to help guide and nurture students need to first establish trust with students.” Once advisers establish trust, a foundation for supportive interaction emerges that improves the willingness of students to converse openly about challenges they face, as well as personal and professional goals. Fielstein (1994) noted, “I suspect advisees would not trust their advisers with private concerns until those advisers had proven themselves to be knowledgeable” (p. 78).  Beck (1999) further suggested “as a crucial initial condition affecting undecided students, established trust levels with advisers will have profound implications on future relationships. … Establishing trust with an adviser is of paramount importance for helping the undecided student” (p. 46).

While numerous additional scholars and practitioners have alluded to the importance of trust as a critical component of advising practice (Antill, 2011; Brown & Rivas, 1994; Church, 2005; Daller, Creamer, & Creamer, 1997; Gordon, 1994; Gordon & Habley, 2000; Gordon, Habley, & Grites, 2008; McClellan, 2005, 2007a; Melander, 2002; Miller & Alberts, 1994; NACADA, 2006a; Ryan, 1992; Skorupa, 2002; Slonneger, 2004; Smith & Downey, 2003; Spicuzza, 1992), few have conducted research and scholarly writing regarding the trust and advising.

Nonetheless, some important work has emerged in this area. In a research study examining what constituted effective advising among nursing students, Harrison (2009) identified “being trustworthy” among the qualities of effective advisers along with the related components of truthfulness, honesty, and caring. Nadler and Simerly (2006) demonstrated, through their work on exploring the relationship between trust and listening in advising, that “the perception of being listened to” was positively and significantly correlated with the development of trust (p. 217). They also found the resulting development of trust led to increased satisfaction and, to a lesser extent, commitment. Punyanunt-Carter & Wrench (2008) further demonstrated that the way in which an adviser approaches conflict situations and engages in mentoring practices increases their perceived trustworthiness.

In his dissertation exploring the role of caring in academic advising, Holmes (2004) discovered:

Among the most predominant recurring topics in the participant interviews, one that was necessary for the establishment and maintenance of meaningful adviser-advisee relationships was that of trust. Five of the advisers participating in the study indicated their belief that trust was the most important element of caring advising. Additionally, student participants distinguished trust as a significant characteristic of caring advisers (p. 90).

He went on to suggest trust was a reciprocal component of building effective relations and that it builds over time and via frequent encounters characterized by caring interaction.

At a more theoretical level, Vasher (2010) reviewed the thirteen behaviors outlined by Covey (1989) and identified those he felt advisers could easily adopt “to build rapport and trust with their students” (¶ 7). These included demonstrating respect for students, talking straight by being honest and direct, delivering results by following through on commitments, and getting better through a commitment to continuous improvement and feedback seeking. Similarly, Schultz (1998) identified the following behaviors as central to building trust in adviser-student relationships based on role-modeling theory: “listening well enough to understand the student’s model of the world, establish a genuine interpersonal relationship, use open, honest, and direct communication, keep appointments, return calls, honor office hours, provide accurate information, honor commitments, and maintain confidentiality” (p. 24).

Some scholars have also suggested trust formation may be more challenging among students of color who have “had socialization experiences that have made them mistrust bureaucracies and their agents” (Brown & Rivas, 1994, p. 110). This may also be true of some nontraditional students (Sedlacek, 1994). To address these limitations, Brown and Rivas suggested:

… advisers take the lead early in the advising relationship and provide as much information as possible to students of color to enhance feelings of trust within the student, feelings that support the student to move to a more complex level of relating to the adviser. (1994, p. 110)

They also discussed the importance of demonstrating competence and confidence. It is worth noting Latino students also indicated trust was important in their relationship with advisers in the work of Negroni-Rodriguez, Dicks, and Morales (2006). However, a deficit in trust was not specifically implied. Nonetheless, Torres, Reiser, LePeau, Davis, and Ruder (2006) suggested advisers need to focus on building trust with first-generation Latino students to encourage them to seek advisers’ assistance as opposed to only peers or families when they need help.

Developing Trust

Clearly the literature relative to advising and trust remains somewhat limited. Nonetheless, when readers combine this area with the broader array of scholarly work on trust, they may glean valuable insights and recommendations to promote greater trust in advising relationships with students.

Researchers and scholars have suggested multiple factors impact trust in dyadic relationships. These include the length of a relationship characterized by repetitive interaction; the quality and quantity of information communicated between individuals; interpersonal congruence of values; belief in the personal integrity, credibility, or character of the other; confidence in the other’s skills or competence; openness; reliability as demonstrated by predictability and/or consistency; an other- versus self-orientation that demonstrates loyalty, caring, and/or benevolence; self-sacrificial behaviors; shared meaning and contribution goals; demonstrations of appreciation and respect on the part of the other; perceived similarity; emotional competence; physical touch; and positive social interaction that results in the release of ocytocin (Bar-On, Maree, & Elias, 2007; Bass & Riggio, 2006; Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Cadwell & Clapham, 2003; Cameron, 2008; Costigan, Ilter, & Berman, 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 et al., 2007; Thomas, Zollin, & Hartman, 2009; Willemyns, Gallois, & Callan, 2003). Some research suggests that amid these multiple contributors to trust formation, confidence in the integrity and competence of an individual is particularly salient (Schindler & Thomas, 1993).  Using the insights gleaned from this research, advisers can promote trust by being trustworthy and incorporating trust-building practices into the advising process.

Developing Trusting Relationships: Being Trustworthy

For academic advisers, trust building begins with the adviser being trustworthy and communicating trustworthiness. The ability to do so is largely based on one’s character, competence, and authentic way of being (Sankar, 2003).

Whether or not one is viewed by others as possessing character is largely dependent on how those one seeks to influence perceive congruence between their own values and the values of the person trying to influence them (Bass & Riggio, 2006; Costigan et al., 1998; Heifetz, 1994; Johnson & Grayson, 2005). This may be termed relational integrity. In addition, those being influenced often demonstrate concern about the extent to which the influencer acts consistently with his or her own espoused values, which speaks to personal integrity (Bateman & Porah, 2003; Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Cadwell & Clapham, 2003; Covey, 2004; Rousseau et al., 1998; Schindler & Thomas, 1993; Shoorman et al., 2007). These two types of integrity represent the essence of character and contribute to predictability, reliability, and an emotional connection required to build trust (Johnson & Grayson, 2005).

If advisers wish to demonstrate both forms of integrity, they must strive to (1) understand other’s values and (2) demonstrate respect while clarifying and communicating their own values and striving to live in accordance with them. It is worth noting, however, that relational integrity further involves acting in ways that are consistent with and respectful of the broader social norms and values of the culture, society, and groups in which advisers find themselves or with which they are working. This frequently implies a willingness to serve others that is at least equal to one’s pursuit of self-interest (Luthans & Avolio, 2003).

To better understand and respect the values of others, one must first learn what values the other holds. This can be accomplished through formal assessment using values questionnaires and/or through paying attention to what the individual appears to value based on what he or she says and does. Consider the following example. A student who comes in to an adviser’s office after having already developed a potential plan of classes and a list of questions that she immediately pursues clearly values his or her time, is organized, and gets things done with efficiency and effectiveness. If the student forgoes or even avoids personal questions and does not seem interested in discussing other issues beyond his or her initial concerns, this too implies certain values. Whether or not the adviser recognizes or agrees with these values, the extent to which the adviser can either communicate similar values (if the adviser possesses similar values) or at least demonstrate a healthy respect for the student’s values will partially determine whether or not the student will regard the adviser as having character.

The second component of character, personal integrity, requires advisers to clarify their own values and act in accordance with them (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). Once again formal assessment of one’s values can assist in this area as can personal reflective observation regarding one’s own behavior and values. Additionally, advisers should communicate their values and demonstrate commitment via their behavior. In so doing, humility is important so as to avoid a context in which the student or those around them feel pacesetting or subtle competition is occurring (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Khoshaba & Maddi, 2005).

To promote trust, advisers must demonstrate competence in addition to character. Competence is based on the capabilities the adviser develops in relation to the conceptual, informational, relational, technological, and personal competencies of advising (Habley, 1995; Higginson, 2000; McClellan, 2007b). However, merely developing competence is insufficient. It is only when the adviser demonstrates these capabilities and others acknowledge them that the perception of competence can be realized (Zenger & Folkman, 2002). Thus advisers must strive to understand the changing needs of their students and continually develop skills to meet these needs. Hence, the need to stay abreast of the theoretical and practical knowledge and skills associated with advising. This also explains the need for improved, ongoing training practices that address each component of adviser training (NACADA, 2003b).

The final element of trustworthiness involves the way in which an adviser communicates espoused values to others through authentic interaction—demonstrating respect for others’ values and commitment to living one’s own. To do so requires authenticity, which is characterized by refinement and conveyance of confidence, hope, optimism, resilience, transparency, moral/ethical behavior, and a future-orientation, as well as a willingness to transcend self-interest (Luthans & Avolio, 2003).

Part of being authentic includes acting out of sincere concern for the student. Failure to do so, regardless of the quality of the trust-building techniques used will ultimately negate the effects of any technique (Arbinger Institute, 2000). Therefore, it is essential advisers guard against using techniques to build trust in the absence of sincere desire and caring (Melohn, 1983). Furthermore, advisers should strive to be true to themselves as opposed to imitating others in their efforts to influence students and build trust. Such genuineness is at the very heart of what it means to be authentic (George, 2008; George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007).

Advisers can also learn a lot about demonstrating trustworthiness from several research studies on the types of behaviors that communicate trustworthiness. In one major study, managers were perceived by employees as being more trustworthy when they demonstrated appreciation for and praised others, cared for the personal and professional welfare of others, communicated openly, and used a mentoring approach when leading others (as cited in Willemyns et al., 2003). In another research study conducted by Bernthal (2006), the top five trust-building behaviors in organizations included communicating openly and honestly without distorting information; showing confidence in others’ abilities by treating them as skilled competent associates; keeping promises and commitments; listening to and valuing what others say, whether or not one agrees; and cooperating with others and looking for ways in which people can help each other. In his review of trust in the workplace, Lewicki (2006) identified the following behaviors: “behave the same appropriate way consistently,” “meet stated deadlines,” “perform tasks and follow through with planned activities” (p. 103). Such behaviors can be incorporated into the advising process to promote trust building.

Developing Trusting Relationships: Trust in the Advising Process

The advising process consists of a series of phases that occur in both a linear and nonlinear fashion. These include: preparation, welcome, rapport building, exploration and clarification, guiding students, wrapping up, and following up (McClellan & Moser, 2011; NACADA, 2006b).

The preparation phase of advising occurs prior to the student’s arrival and is essential to promoting trust. In relation to both the general and specific aspects of this stage, advisers demonstrate and communicate character, competence, and caring when they prepare adequately to meet with students.

The general aspect refers to advisers’ ongoing efforts to develop knowledge and skills. Involvement in professional associations, participation in training, and frequent review of policies and procedures are essential.

The more specific aspect of preparation refers to the preparation taken to meet with a specific student. This preparation should include a review of previous notes on interactions with the student and some reflection about the needs of the student. Consideration may also be given to the values orientation and interests of the student and how to best demonstrate interest and respect for them. Thus preparation should encompass aspects related to both the competence and character components of the process.

The second stage of the advising process is extremely brief. It encompasses the first few seconds of interaction. Nonetheless it is one of the most critical stages of the trust building process. Researchers have demonstrated that lasting impressions of others are typically established within the first few seconds of interaction (Gladwell, 2005). Therefore, how an adviser greets a student matters immensely. Trust-building advisers demonstrate their character and caring in the way they respond to the arrival of a student. Their eyes, tone of voice, and actions all convey interest and acceptance of the student.

Rapport Building
Building on the greeting interaction, advisers typically proceed to “developing or quickly reestablishing rapport with the student” (Nutt, 2000, p. 225). The actual way in which this component of the advising process occurs probably varies more from adviser to adviser than any other part of the process. This is appropriate, as true authenticity requires forging relationships through the unique way of being individual people (George, 2008; George et al., 2007). Consequently, whereas some advisers may spend a lot of time inquiring about the student’s personal interests, family situation, etc., other advisers may spend more time on academic issues such as progress in the student’s classes or extracurricular school activities. Some may share more about themselves in an attempt to demonstrate openness, thereby modeling this essential component of trust building. Still others may dedicate little time early in the appointment to building rapport, preferring instead to focus on helping the student first. Once this is accomplished, or even while doing so, advisers may then engage in rapport-building activities. Regardless of the approach, rapport building represents an essential component of all advising interaction and is a critical element of trust building.

Exploration and clarification
The exploration and clarification stage of the advising process is largely characterized and typified by the quantity and quality of listening that occurs. Given the connection between trust and effective listening (Johnson & Grayson, 2005; Nadler & Simerly, 2006; Schultz, 1998; Vasher, 2010), moving too quickly from this stage into guiding students can significantly limit trust formation and maintenance. Consequently, advisers should spend adequate time and effort listening to truly understand the content (the student’s interests and concerns) and context (the student’s situation), as well as the emotional significance of these to the student. This requires advisers to engage in effective, active, empathic listening practices (Covey, 1989).

Brownell (2008) developed a model of the listening process that informs a better understanding of the breadth of cognitive processes associated with active listening. According to Brownell, listening begins with hearing, which she defined as focusing attention on the right things. In advising, this means an adviser must eliminate physical, mental, auditory, and visual, distractions and focus attention on the student, thereby allowing him or her to hear what the student has to communicate. Nutt (2000) wrote, “Students must feel they have the undivided attention of their advisers if they are to communicate openly and honestly on issues of concern” (p. 221).

Stage two is “understanding,” which involves actively seeking to decipher the meaning of what is being communicated (Brownell, 2008). While this may seem simple, people often confuse understanding words with understanding meaning. The goal is to understand the meaning behind the words a student uses by avoiding interruptions and engaging in follow-up inquiry and feedback. Asking effective, open-ended questions is also important (Nutt, 2000).

The third stage of Brownell’s (2008) listening model is remembering. Central to being perceived as an effective listener is the ability to base one’s actions on what the speaker says. To effectively make decisions, coach students, or follow up, an adviser must remember what the student has said. Note taking and record keeping are essential components of remembering.

Stage four is interpreting. Interpreting requires listeners to “consider a range of cues to determine their partner’s intention” (Brownell, 2008, p. 219) through empathic listening that goes beyond just understanding meaning to recognizing and validating emotion. To do so advisers pay attention to body language, tone of voice, and other subtle cues and practice empathic responding and paraphrasing to ensure accuracy (Nutt, 2000). Interpreting also involves understanding the cultural, social, and organizational contexts in which communication takes place and their impact on meaning.  Once this level of understanding occurs, advisers engage in evaluation, stage five.

Whether or not advisers intend to, they constantly evaluate the messages they receive by making judgments about the “ideas and proposals that come to their attention” (Brownell, 2008, p. 219). This is a natural part of cognitive processing. However, to build trust and influence, advisers must be careful to suspend judgment in order to deepen understanding. Furthermore, when they engage in evaluation of others’ communications, they should do so with full awareness of their own mental models, biases, interests, etc., and should manage or bracket these appropriately.

The final stage of the model is “responding.” In this stage, advisers “respond to what they hear in ways that promote openness and dialogue” (Brownell, 2008, p. 219). Therefore, advisers respond to students’ concerns by broadening and deepening the dialogue between them. Developmental advising, appreciative advising, self-authorship advising, and advising as coaching represent relevant approaches to achieving this goal (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008; Bloom & Martin, 2002; Burton & Wellington, 1998; Gordon, 1995; McClellan & Moser, 2011; Pizzolato, 2006; Winston, Miller, Ender, Grites, & Associates, 1984). This stage of listening is closely related to the next stage of advising. Nonetheless its inclusion here suggests that while the exploration and clarification stage is primarily about listening, it is essential advisers incorporate listening into all aspects of the advising process.

Guiding students
Once an adviser fully understands the needs, desires, and/or concerns of a student, he or she can effectively begin to “advise” the student. While a multitude of approaches exists for actually providing advice, including prescriptive, developmental, teaching-learning, coaching, self-authorship, mentoring, appreciative, Socratic, and humanities-based or narrative approaches (Bloom et al., 2008; Bloom & Martin, 2002; Burton & Wellington, 1998; Gordon, 1995; Hagen, 2008; Hemwell & Trachte, 1999, 2005; Kadar, 2001; Kirk-Kuwaye & Libarios, 2003; Kuhtmann, 2005; McClellan & Moser, 2011; Pizzolato, 2006; Winston et al., 1984), the actual approach used is probably not as significant as the application of trust-building principles.

Such principles suggest that as advisers engage, they practice dialogical interaction characterized by iterative giving and receiving of feedback (Bar-On et al., 2007; Brownell, 2008; Zenger & Folkman, 2002). Likewise, advisers need to convey information accurately, openly, completely, and with confidence (Bernthal, 2006; Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Cameron, 2008; Rousseau et al., 1998; Schindler & Thomas, 1993; Schultz, 1998; Thomas et al., 2009; Vasher, 2010; Willemyns et al., 2003). The use of positive emotion through humor or simple joyful emotive communication also promotes trust formation (Cameron, 2008; Johnson & Grayson, 2005; Kramer, 2009), as does demonstrating respect and communicating appreciation (Covey, 2004; Lyman, 2003; Vasher, 2010; Willemyns et al., 2003). Finally, the adviser needs to accurately respond to the students’ needs and communicate a sincere desire to do so consistent with what has been said previously about trustworthiness and sincere concern for others (Butler & Cantrell, 1984; Cadwell & Clapham, 2003; Galford & Drapeau, 2002; Hosmer, 1995; Johnson & Grayson, 2005; Lyman, 2003; Rousseau et al., 1998; Schindler & Thomas, 1993; Shoorman et al., 2007; Willemyns et al., 2003).

Wrapping up
The wrapping-up stage of the advising process involves concluding the advising session by reminding the student of actions the adviser and student will take before the next meeting, providing a positive conclusion to the process, and inviting the student to return. To promote trust at this stage, advisers should communicate clearly and effectively, use positive emotion to encourage the student, convey and reinforce enjoyment with what has occurred in the session, and demonstrate a sincere interest in the student’s return.

Following up
The final stage of the advising process involves following up on commitments. Because follow through is, in and of itself, a critical component of trust formation, the importance of this step is intuitive (Lewicki, 2006; Schultz, 1998; Vasher, 2010). Nonetheless, advisers should ensure they communicate when follow up has taken place. An additional component of follow up could involve the ongoing provision of relevant information, which the adviser did not originally commit to provide. For example, an adviser can send information about internships to a student who is looking for one when the adviser acquires new information he or she did not foresee during the appointment. Providing unintended support is one way of promoting trust by demonstrating interest and concern for another person. Additional behaviors advisers can engage in at this stage include keeping appointments, returning calls promptly, and honoring office hours (Schultz, 1998).

In conclusion, developing trust in advising requires advisers to engage in trust-building behaviors across the breadth of the advising process. This complements and reinforces their efforts to demonstrate trustworthiness.


Whether or not the advising community ever develops an adequate definition or theory of advising, the suggestion by Palmer, Zajonc, and Scribner (2010) that “relationships built on trust, respect, and openness among faculty, staff, and students are critical in fostering holistic student development” (p. 171) is deeply relevant to the work of advising. Simply put, effective advising is dependent upon the development of trust. As a result, this article included a summary and discussion of the trust literature with an emphasis on application-oriented procedures and processes. At the center of these lies the capacity of advisers to demonstrate and communicate trustworthiness and to engage in trust-promoting activities based on their understanding of trust, its role in advising, how it is developed, and how they can develop trusting relationships with their students.


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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey L. McClellan, Frostburg State University

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

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