The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Building and maintaining trust in doctoral supervisor/supervisee relationships

building and maintaining trust in doctoral supervisor relationships - graphic icon people in a circle reaching their arm to the centre
For doctoral candidates, working towards their doctoral degree is a personal journey, which can be rather long and lonely – but ideally, the doctoral supervisor will be there to offer support along the way. The relationship between candidate and supervisor is not simply that of learner/teacher, but often involves joint projects, shared co-authorships, and mentoring, even beyond the doctoral degree.

In some national contexts, the doctoral supervisor is referred to as ‘advisor’ and, for supervisors in Germany, the literal translation of the terms ‘Doktorvater’ or ‘Doktormutter’ is father or mother of the doctorate. Irrespective of the term that is used, there is agreement that this is an important relationship that sometimes can even be decisive for whether a doctoral student thrives in or abandons the doctoral programme (Louden et al., 2020). At the 2022 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference, we conducted an interactive world café on this topic using the lens of ‘trust’ to explore understanding of this dyadic relationship.

trust in the supervisor supervisee team

Trust is the willingness of an individual (the trustor) to be vulnerable to another on whom they rely (the trustee), based on positive expectations, and where a risk is present (Mayer et al., 1995). For example, when we delegate work or share a secret with someone, we take a risk (they may not undertake the work to the required standard, or they may betray our secret). Perceived trustworthiness is based on judgments of ability (perceived competence of the trustee), benevolence (belief that the trustee has positive intentions towards the trustor), and integrity (belief the trustee will adhere to acceptable standards and values). Trust has been described as a critical component of effective mentoring relationships (Leck & Orser, 2013). In dyadic supervisory relationships, both supervisors and supervisees are trustors of the other, their willingness to become vulnerable being influenced by perceptions of the other’s trustworthiness. This draws upon what, as trustors, each already knows about the other’s ability, integrity, and benevolence, and can evolve over time as they work together. As trustors, each, through their behaviours, needs to demonstrate their trust of the other, whilst as trustees, each needs to demonstrate through their actions that they are worthy of being trusted. Congruence of actions of both demonstrating trust and trustworthiness are therefore crucial for both supervisees and supervisors.

As part of the world café, conference delegates explored four aspects of establishing trust in the supervisor/supervisee team. These related to how supervisors and how supervisees each signal to the other that they are trustworthy; and how each demonstrates through their actions their trust of the other.

Supervisors signal their trustworthiness to their supervisees through visible signs of ability, integrity, and benevolence. Ability may first be gauged by the supervisee based on the supervisor’s research publications. Other signals of ability can include their experience, for example indicated by the number of students supervised to successful completion, as well as informal comments made by current and former supervisees. Integrity is signalled through ensuring a transparent and open supervision experience, whereby expectations are disclosed clearly. Our participants discussed how far this disclosure should include sharing one’s philosophy of supervision (e.g., reviewer versus mentor). At the very least, the supervisor would need to demonstrate respect. Finally, benevolence may initially be more difficult to gauge for the student, and in general benevolence judgments tend to take longer to form (see also Schoorman, Mayer & Davis, 2007). An important initial signal is that the supervisor will be open to the supervisee’s preferred direction and show interest in getting to know the supervisee. Throughout the doctoral journey, benevolence will typically be signalled in moments that matter – will the supervisor be available in those moments, show empathy and give enough time? However, it may sometimes be difficult to gauge what is the ideal degree of engaging in personal conversation versus keeping communication at a professional level, and clearly the answers to this question will be influenced by culture and personal preferences.

Supervisors demonstrate their trust in their supervisees through their actions. Do they truly give the doctoral candidate a choice, ensuring they have time and space to make their points and react well to disagreement? Ideally, supervisors will inspire their students to do even better than themselves! By showing that they themselves are sometimes not sure, the supervisors can demonstrate their willingness to be vulnerable. The same is true for letting the student decide how much of their personal life they wish or do not wish to share with them – sometimes a supervisor may need to accept, for example, not to know all the detail of why a deadline was missed. In the context of doctorates by publication, trust can also be signalled by the supervisor inviting supervisees into their network and supporting co-authoring of a paper with colleagues without the supervisor. Furthermore, trust is demonstrated by sharing opportunities with the supervisee. Finally, the participants of our world café discussed the importance of trusting the student by empowering the student to take important decisions, which would, however, remain dependent on the supervisee being able to defend their position with clear critical arguments.

how do I show I'm trustworthy?

Signalling supervisor-supervisee trustworthiness and trust

The first impression of supervisees’ trustworthiness arises during the recruitment process, when supervisors assess the students’ ability. Throughout the supervision process, supervisees then signal their trustworthiness through the integrity of their actions. These include being open and honest about their work with the supervisor, respecting deadlines and through presenting their best work, respecting their supervisor’s time, taking responsibility for their studies and being accountable for their work. Given the power imbalance, supervisors may be somewhat less focused upon looking for signals of benevolence of their supervisees than vice versa (Nienaber et al., 2015). Yet, given benevolence judgments have been shown to be strongly linked with affect, perceived benevolence is linked with a generally positive relationship. The precise boundaries may differ from one supervisory team to another, striking a balance between being open yet not dumping every problem on supervisors.

Supervisees demonstrate their trust in their supervisors by being open about their abilities and admitting their weaknesses in a timely manner. When making themselves vulnerable, such as by asking for advice and talking openly about all aspects of their research, they do so with a critical mind; working in partnership with their supervisor. Our discussions revealed that expectations may differ regarding how far students should consider their supervisor’s advice. At the very least, they should be open to listening to the advice. However, making counterarguments and asking uncomfortable questions of the supervisor is also an act of trust. Trust of course continues to be demonstrated after the degree is completed, through ongoing interactions with the supervisor and recommendations to potential supervisees.

In conclusion, a trusting supervisory team is the responsibility of both the supervisor and the supervisee. Within this relationship both need to demonstrate through their actions that they are trustworthy and, crucially, that they trust the other. Our discussions revealed that there is not one ideal style of supervisor-supervisee collaboration – rather that it is important to meta-communicate regarding mutual expectations before engaging in supervision and continue these discussions throughout the doctoral journey. Our limited time did not allow us to also discuss the characteristics of the doctoral programme and university environment that will have a positive effect on trust, for example through propagating strong norms of integrity as well as institutionalised feedback mechanisms. This is an interesting topic for another world café.

building and maintaining trust in doctoral supervisor relationships

See more articles from Vol.17 Issue 2 – Towards healthy doctoral systems.

Leck, J. and B. Orser (2013). Fostering trust in mentoring relationships: An exploratory study. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 32(4) pp.410-425.

Loudoun, R, E.A. Morrison, M.N.K. Saunders and K. Townsend (2020) What we wish we had known: lessons learned to keep your doctorate on track. In K. Townsend, M.N.K. Saunders, R. Loudoun and E.A. Morrison (Eds.) How to keep your doctorate on track. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.1-13.

Mayer, R.C., J.H. Davis and F.D. Schoorman (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), pp.709-734.

Nienaber, A-M., P.D. Romeike, R. Searle and G. Schewe (2015). A qualitative meta-analysis of trust in supervisor-subordinate relationships. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(5), pp.507-534

Schoorman, F.D., R.C. Mayer and J.H. Davis (2007). An integrative model of organizational trust: Past, present, and future. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), pp.344-354.

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