Establishing trust in the supervisor/supervisee team


Research has shown that trust is a crucial lubricant connecting and enabling people within organisations, having positive effects on commitment, loyalty, effectiveness, cooperation and work relationships. The relationship between doctoral supervisor and student is no different, trust being crucial to supervisory relationships, with both supervisors and supervisees needing to demonstrate they are worthy of being trusted and, that their trust in the other. A world café at the 2022 EFMD doctoral conference explored trust in productive supervisory relationships.

Trust is the willingness of an individual (the trustor) to be vulnerable to another on whom they rely (the trustee), on the basis of 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 (that they do not do the work well, or that they tell our secret). For both supervisor and supervisee as trustors of the other, willingness to become vulnerable is influenced by perceptions of the other’s trustworthiness. This draws upon what, as trustors, they already know about the other’s ability, integrity, and benevolence. As trustors they also need through their behaviours to show their trust of the other; congruence of signals of trustworthiness and their actions demonstrating they trust, being crucial.

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 were trustworthy; and how each demonstrated through their actions their trust of the other. Some of these were captured by the conference’s visual harvester (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Visual Harvest: trust in the supervisor/supervisee team

Figure 1: Visual Harvest: trust in the supervisor/supervisee team

Supervisors signal their trustworthiness to their supervisees through both their reputation and their supervisory actions. A supervisor’s reputation, in particular in terms of their publications, offers a way to assess their ability as a researcher. Other signals of reputation include their experience, for example, indicated by number of students supervised to successful completion, as well as informal comments made by current and former supervisees. Within the supervisory process, trustworthiness is signalled to supervisees by benevolent actions, such as engaging in personal conversations with their supervisees and showing they care; as well as showing integrity by keeping their word and being clear about their expectations for the tasks at hand. Interestingly, participants found that it is sometimes difficult to gauge the right amount of clarity versus independence, and of engaging in personal conversation versus keeping communication at a professional level.

Supervisors demonstrate their trust in their supervisees through their actions. Integrity is apparent through ensuring a transparent and open supervision experience, giving the student power, and encouraging student ownership of their research. Benevolence can be demonstrated through being open to the supervisee’s preferred direction. Invariably this remains dependent on the supervisee being able to defend their position with clear a critical argument. However, this aspect of our world café discussions revealed interesting tensions between empowerment and direction.

Supervisees’ abilities will invariably have been assessed as part of the recruitment process. Within the supervision process, supervisees 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. Supervisees also show their trustworthiness through working autonomously, taking responsibility for their studies and being accountable for their work.

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, thereby demonstrating integrity. Tensions in this area lie for example in the degree to which supervisees are expected to share openly all worries and problems, versus trying to solve some of these independently first.

A trusting supervisory team is clearly 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.

Mark NK Saunders is Director of Global Engagement at the Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham and Marion Fortin is the Director of the Doctoral Programme of Toulouse School of Management. They both moderated a world café session at the recent 2022 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference hosted in Brussels by Vlerick Business School.

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