Lynsey Thibeault, University of Southern Maine
Advisors often have to find balance between building relationships with students and ensuring students have the tools to successfully meet major and institutional requirements. As advisors, we know how important a relationship connection can be to a student in helping them progress to graduation, but we also know we have limited time with our students and often feel the weight to focus on the tasks at hand: i.e. artfully navigating tricky major requirements, maneuvering through dense catalog policies, and manipulating the semester schedule to fit the student’s needs. Undoubtedly, this balance is easier said than done in part because we may feel stronger at one set of skills over the other.
The NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies Model (NACADA, 2017) guides professional development and practice among advising professionals. The model is based on three foundational components for “effective advisor training programs and advising practice—the conceptual, informational, and relational” (Farr & Cunningham, 2017, p. 4). The conceptual component includes concepts advisors should understand, including relevant advising theory, advising strategy, and the role of advising within higher education. The second and third components closely relate to the aforementioned relationship-building and task-related skillsets. The informational component, i.e. institutional knowledge, curriculum comprehension, familiarity with campus resources, etc., aligns well with focusing on important advising tasks. While the relational component, i.e. creating rapport, effectively communicating, goal setting, etc., clearly ties into the relationship building skillset.
While I love building relationships and probably wouldn’t be an advisor if I didn’t, the balance of my skillset leans ever so slightly to the task-related components of the job. I know I would not enjoy the job without the relationship building aspects; however, I have found that I need to work more diligently to maintain those competencies. Problem and puzzle solving engage my strengths and interests and come quite naturally to me when working with students. They do, however, use a different part of my brain and can take me out of relationship-building mode. I think whether, as advisors, our balance leans towards naturally building advising relationships or toward the tasks involved, advisors have to be able to transition between these two skillsets in order to meet the diverse needs of students.
Looking Toward the Leadership Field
Relationship and task orientations have been discussed heavily in the field of leadership. Fiedler (1967) was one of the first to define this dynamic as a leader’s motivational structure. That is, whether the leader’s goal is to build a relationship with those they are leading or their goal is to accomplish the task at hand. While Cowsill and Grint (2008) report that a review of the literature shows that this inclination toward task or relationship orientation is a preference, they then go on to argue that there is more to this dichotomy than simply preferring one style over the other. When applying task and relationship orientation to advising, creating balance between the two perspectives may be the most effective option.
Advisors as Leaders
One of the often overlooked roles that advisors take on is that of a leader. Leadership appears in our relationships with students as we help them meet their academic goals and ultimately the goal of graduation (Paul, Smith, & Dochney, 2012). Knowledge, authority, experience, etc. are among the many reasons that students come to advisors for support in working towards their aspirations. A task-oriented leader may rely on the completion of certain tasks to determine whether a goal has been met, whereas a relationship-oriented leader may focus more on the individual performing the tasks.
In an advising meeting where an advisor prefers a task orientation, the discussion may include a credit count to review requirements met and remaining requirements and a discussion of course options for the upcoming semester. In an advising meeting where an advisor prefers a relationship orientation, the discussion may include open-ended questions about the student’s hopes and dreams. Advisors might prefer one orientation over the other but ideally see the need for and can tap into both perspectives. Our goals as advisors for a student meeting are likely the same, to make sure the student is set up for success and to help them progress to graduation; however, the styles we use to help lead the student there may be different.
At the University of Southern Maine, our advising office utilizes assessment to identify areas of strength and opportunities for growth within our department. While most of our assessment is based on student learning outcomes, we also assess certain outcomes for advisors. For example, USM’s Advisor Learning Outcomes document outlines expectations for advisors including “recognize each of my advisees as a whole, unique individual” and “use the advising relationship and proactive intervention to encourage student success” (USM Assessment Committee, personal communication, 2007). One of the ways in which we qualitatively measure ourselves against these outcomes is through our Peer Partner Program where we pair up to each observe a student advising meeting with a colleague. After the student meeting is complete, advisors meet to talk about observations and reflect on the experience. The experience is not reported to a supervisor nor is it a part of any performance review. The exercise is truly meant to be an opportunity to learn from each other.
This year’s Peer Partner experience unexpectedly helped inform my own views on task and relationship orientation, as I was unintentionally partnered with an advisor who is a natural relationship builder. Our biggest observations of each other’s meetings were the differences associated with these two approaches. My meeting was focused mostly on what I refer to as graduation math, where we reviewed how many credits per semester my senior-level business student planned to complete and how many general electives he would need in order to meet minimum graduation requirements. My partner’s meeting with a sophomore-level psychology student included a discussion of how her classes related to one another and took on a very academic tone. The differences within our conversations certainly arose from the students’ different personalities and needs within those meetings. Undoubtedly though, some of it was due to the differences in how my partner and I utilized our relationship and task orientations. In the end, my partner decided to incorporate a version of graduation math into her next meeting and I got some great ideas for some more open-ended questions to help my next student reflect on his learning.
Strengthening Balance Between Skillsets
As stated earlier, both relationship building and tasks to achieve graduation are important regardless of a preference towards one or the other. An advisor can expand their skill set with the following strategies.
To develop the relationship building orientation:
- Observe an advising meeting with a colleague who is especially strong in building relationships.
- Ask students open-ended questions to get the student talking and reflecting on their experiences.
- In addition to asking how classes are going, also ask students about what they are learning to bridge academics into the advising conversation.
- Build trust with students by completing any follow-up within 24 hours.
- Acknowledge when the advisor has learned something from the student. Their experiences in and outside the classroom can help to inform the advising practice.
To develop the task orientation:
- Observe an advising meeting with a colleague who is especially strong in the task-oriented parts of advising.
- While preparing in advance for appointments, a lot of the task-oriented items can be prepped ahead of time so that they are then simply being reviewing with the student during the meeting and not created on the spot.
- When unsure or uncomfortable about confirming requirements, let the student know that follow-up will occur within 24 hours. This will allow a check and recheck of the graduation math and even allow time to run the requirements past a colleague or their major department if needed.
- Write down any goals for a particular advising meeting and check the list before the student leaves to make sure the goals have been accomplished.
- Create systems that allow staying on top of tasks: i.e. to-do lists, bookmarking frequently visited websites, and committing to writing meeting notes during or immediately following the student meeting.
The diversity of advisors’ styles and skillsets, not only in relationship and task orientation, but in other aspects as well, can only serve to help other advisors to learn and grow. It is important to connect with each other to learn from our strengths. The growth and development of advisors is key to our success in ultimately helping our students meet their goals.
University of Southern Maine
Cowsill, R., & Grint, K. (2008). Leadership, task and relationship: Orpheus, Prometheus and Janus. Human Resource Management Journal, 18(2), 188–195.
Farr, T. & Cunningham, L. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies guide. Manhattan, KS: NACADA, The Global Community for Academic Advising.
Fiedler, F. E. (1967). A theory of leadership effectiveness. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx
Paul, W. K., Smith, K. C., & Dochney, B. J. (2012). Advising as servant leadership: Investigating the relationship. NACADA Journal, 32(1), 53.
Cite this article using APA style as: Thibeault, L. (2018, September). Relationship-orientated and task-orientated advising: Balancing skillsets. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]