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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2005
Maintaining the Balancing Act
as Faculty Advisor

Merry J. Sleigh, PhD, and Donna Webster Nelson, PhD
Winthrop University (SC)

Becoming a faculty advisor is a great privilege that comes with great responsibility. Faculty advisors play a central role in the life of most Psi Chi chapters, impacting everything from recruitment to the interpersonal relations of members and officers. According to our research, both faculty and students agree that advisors are necessary for chapters to run efficiently. Because advising has such potential significance for chapter functions, it is important to consider the roles that advisors play and how advisors might best enact those roles. This article will address two issues that advisors often face. The first is finding a balance between exerting too much control over the chapter versus not providing enough leadership. The second is finding the balance between accomplishing the task while still supporting the individuals involved in the task.

Issue #1: Exerting Control vs. Allowing Freedom
An important consideration for advisors when providing leadership is the level of control to be exerted. Finding an appropriate level of control can be a challenge, because advisors and students may bring unique backgrounds, skills, and expectations to the situation. We surveyed 192 undergraduate students and 40 faculty members who had served or were serving as club faculty advisors at Winthrop University to assess their perceptions of the role of chapter/club advisors and found that student officers want more hands-on leadership from advisors than faculty realize. Members want even more participation from the advisor than do the officers. Similarly, female students tend to want more proactive advice, while male students prefer that the advisor wait to be asked before offering suggestions. Less experienced advisors tend to value control more than advisors who have served for a lengthy period. Advisors who fail to negotiate this delicate balancing act between too much versus not enough control can make the chapter vulnerable to a variety of negative consequences.

On one hand, advisors who do too much are depriving students of the learning experience that comes through leadership and chapter participation. A second concern is that students who do not actively participate in the accomplishments of the chapter may miss out on the pride and enjoyment that results from those accomplishments. Without a sense of ownership, students are likely to be less invested in chapter outcomes, and thus a chapter without participating members is pointless. Last, overreaching advisors create unnecessary work for themselves, which can lead to resentment and burn-out. Instead of being in a position to encourage students, these exhausted advisors need encouragement and support themselves.

Laissez-faire advisors create different, but just as detrimental, problems for the chapter. Students often enter leadership positions with an impressive skill set, but need guidance from the advisor to translate those skills into tangible products. Without this guidance, students can be frustrated and lose motivation. In addition, there is a risk that little will be accomplished over the course of the year, which discourages members, compromises national goals, and diminishes the chapter's reputation.

Sometimes, a strong set of officers can step up to the plate and compensate for a disengaged advisor, and it is a great credit to officers who can do so. However, alternate scenarios are also possible. For example, officers may bend to the pressure of some members by overemphasizing social rather than service activities. Or, without structured leadership and communicated expectations, individual officers may find themselves in a power struggle for control of the chapter. None of these situations are ideal for the long-term health and viability of the chapter.

Possible Solution: Balance Through Structure
The solution, as an advisor, is to find the balance between over and under involvement. One possible way to manage this balance is to create a structured framework within which officers and members can enjoy autonomy. The advisor's role is to supply continuity for and maintenance of the established structure.
The starting point is to define roles and expectations clearly. The Psi Chi national website (www.psichi.org) provides guidelines for advisor and officer responsibilities, while still offering flexibility for individual chapter needs. The ideal time to disseminate this information is when the chapter is seeking new officers. Once the officers are in place, this information should be provided in writing. For example, advisors might want to create notebooks that correspond to each officer position. The notebooks can contain a brief description of all officer positions, with a more detailed list of responsibilities for the officer who will receive that notebook. Presenting the responsibilities in the form of a checklist might help make the duties even more accessible to the student.

Attaching specific responsibilities to specific officer positions gives students clear boundaries about who is in charge of what. Instead of stepping on one another's toes, they can work in agreed upon leadership or support roles. Strong student leaders who are in charge of a project may choose to delegate portions of that project to engaged members or to other officers. The delegation and management process are wonderful tools to prepare students for the realities of the job market.

The same plan can be applied to the chapter as a whole. The advisor can create a general set of goals for the year and include these in the notebooks, again in the form of a checklist. It is critical that the advisor avoid micromanaging chapter goals. Instead, the advisor can present categories of activities which officers and members can decide upon the details (e.g., one service project per semester). Similarly, the goals must allow room for the officers to exceed the expectations; otherwise, the checklist might diminish officers' intrinsic motivation. For example, a goal might be for the chapter to produce at least one newsletter per semester. The format, content, timing, and length are at the officers' discretion, as is the possibility of producing more than one newsletter over the course of the semester.

In an established chapter, the advisor may want to develop next year's goals in conjunction with the current officers and members. Advisors should strive to connect with students in this way, as they are a valuable resource in determining reasonable priorities and plans. During this process, if the goals for the current year have not been met, that situation can be used as a teaching tool. The group can assess whether there was a failure in execution or whether the goals themselves were unrealistic.

An added benefit of the checklist system is that the advisor is not in a position to "police" the chapter. All officers are aware of which goals have been met and which have not. Thus, the conversation becomes a group effort, rather than the advisor reporting the chapter's progress to the officers. Similarly, all officers know each officer's responsibilities and whether those responsibilities are being met. The key is that this knowledge occurs without an uncomfortable conversation where officers are questioning and accusing one another. When a task is not completed, the focus can be on improving performance rather than arguing about who should have been responsible. With the advisor's help, the focus can stay on the problems associated with the task rather than the limitations of the person in charge.

If the goals for the current year were met, officers and members should be praised and recognized for their efforts. The Psi Chi National Office has certificates and other recognition options available to chapters. Chapters may also generate their own awards and customs, such as "Psi Chi Member of the Month." Newsletters and bulletin boards offer an excellent opportunity to highlight exceptional contributions. Posting pictures of people and events draws student attention, which is good advertising, and connects names with faces, which encourages collegiality.

The end of the semester/year assessment can also be an appropriate time to compile resources and tips for next year's officers. These resources might include names of university officials who have been helpful, contact people in the local community, examples of advertising, t-shirt order forms, or membership applications. Any information that has proved useful over the past year should be included in the officer notebooks. Whenever possible, hard copies should be supplemented with electronic versions. The ongoing contributions to the notebooks are most likely to be generated by the officers, rather than the advisor. In this way, the notebook becomes a living history of how and what the chapter has accomplished. Officers are able to leave their fingerprint on their leadership year as well as to impact future generations of Psi Chi members.

Issue #2: Focusing on the Chapter's Goals vs. Emphasizing Individual Needs
A second issue that can challenge chapter advisors is finding the balance between being task-focused versus person-focused. Again, our research indicates that students and faculty bring different expectations to the situation. As seen in Table 1, most students emphasize the importance of focusing on the people involved rather than focusing on the task at hand. In contrast, faculty seem to be evenly divided about whether an advisor should be person-focused, task-focused, or both. Female advisors and students tend to emphasize relational aspects of advising, such as soliciting feedback and interacting well, more so than do men. The ideal is to accomplish the chapter's goals, while simultaneously caring for each member; however, this ideal may be impossible to accomplish. Typically, advisors find themselves sacrificing one end of the continuum for the other, which can lead to unpleasant consequences.

Advisors who care more about people than the task may create a fun environment where little gets accomplished. Although this scenario may be enjoyable in the short run, most members ultimately find it frustrating to be part of a nonproductive group. In addition, Psi Chi is not solely a social organization. Rather its mission is to "encourage, stimulate, and maintain excellence in the scholarship of individual members, while advancing psychology and society." This mission may require an advisor to give unpopular feedback at times. An advisor who is overly concerned with people's feelings may be unable to do so.

On the other hand, advisors who care more about the task than people may end the year with a long list of accomplishments and a group of disillusioned members. Psi Chi's mission specifically addresses the individual, which highlights the importance of each member, not just the chapter as a whole. One way that advisors can assist members is to help them advance their skills; however, in order to do so, the advisor must have some understanding of the members' skill sets and potential. An advisor who is overly concerned with completing a task may be blind to members' needs, or may unnecessarily harm members by treating them as a means to an end.

Possible Solution: Balance Through Social Support
Members are integral to the existence of Psi Chi, but the chapter's purpose is to accomplish tasks that contribute to science and society. In order to find the balance between these two needs, advisors should carefully consider the social support they are providing to the group. Social processes are known to have a significant impact on group functioning and performance. Thus, interactions between advisor, members, and officers are likely to shape the character of a chapter in powerful ways. Advisors can facilitate chapter success by offering a supportive, encouraging presence and fostering the development of cohesion within the group. Advisors who are able to relate to students in these positive ways are likely to enhance student motivation and efficacy.
To begin, the advisor must develop rapport with student members. This can be accomplished by demonstrating interest, positive regard, and encouragement. Advisors can demonstrate their interest by being interactive and enthusiastic. Advisors should clearly communicate their availability and lack of availability to students. Clear boundaries keep the advisor from being overwhelmed by students at inopportune times and enable students to have predictable access to the advisor. Making time for students signals that the advisor is dedicated to the group. In our research, we asked students and faculty to rate ten characteristics for a chapter advisor to possess from most important (1 rating) to least important (10 rating). Students rated 'dedicated to the chapter' and 'interacts well with students' as the two most important characteristics for an advisor to have. These results are shown in Table 2.

Advisors can further promote a favorable working relationship with students by communicating positive expectations and a belief in the students' abilities.

The faith of a respected faculty is often enough to scaffold students to a higher level of performance. One way to acknowledge student efforts is to have faculty in the department sign a card of appreciation for each officer at the end of the semester or year. When advisors consistently acknowledge the good work that the chapter is doing, the members will be more receptive when the advisor needs to offer constructive feedback about areas of weakness. Although it is easier to praise than to criticize, the member and chapter will benefit when the advisor can be honest about both excellent and poor efforts.

There are several rules of thumb that are valuable to advisors when providing feedback to members. First, credit should be freely given in public, while negative feedback is given in private. Chapter meetings and newsletters are two opportunities for public praise. A private meeting should be conducted at a mutually agreeable time for the involved parties, and should be scheduled in advance rather than initiated unexpectedly. A second rule of thumb is to separate the person from the behavior. Good people can make bad choices. Thus, the emphasis should be on the action, without involving the overall character of the actor. Third, feedback should be presented as a conversation, not a monologue. Both sides should have an opportunity to share perceptions and thoughts. Feedback should be used as a teaching tool, not as a final judgment about a person or situation. Unless the behavior being addressed is harmful to others, then the person receiving the feedback has the choice of whether to take it or leave it.

Advisors who adopt this type of affirming, supportive attitude will build trust with students. One way to preserve this trust is to refrain from taking sides during conflicts between group members. An advisor's first response should be to encourage the parties to speak directly to one another. An advisor should never solve a problem that the members can appropriately solve themselves. If the advisor is forced into the problem, it is wise to remember that there are at least two sides to every story. Thus, speaking with one party will rarely provide enough evidence to reach a clear conclusion. An advisor who listens without reaching an immediate conclusion will win respect. Even the speaker who is anxious to be immediately believed will appreciate the fact that one person's story will not carry enough weight to override the full picture.

In addition to establishing rapport with members, a second goal of an effective advisor is to foster rapport and cohesiveness between student members. Advisors can facilitate this by encouraging officers to adopt practices that promote active participation of all members and respect for differing opinions. For example, collecting written comments during a meeting and allocating time to discuss each comment may be a way to involve as many members as possible in chapter business. Or, randomly divide members into small groups at a chapter meeting in order to brainstorm about activities. Smaller groups may allow more individual participation and will help members get to know one another. Chapters might consider making name tags or utilizing officer ribbons (available at the Psi Chi website) to help students get to know one another. The advisor could also encourage officers and members to organize social events that provide opportunities for relaxed and pleasant interactions that may enhance cohesiveness within the group.

Once positive rapport and cohesiveness are established between advisors and students and amongst students themselves, a sense of community is likely to develop. This sense of community should be furthered whenever possible. Chapter members may decide to collectively adopt a particular service project, such as joining a Psi Chi national initiative or meeting a local community need. The chapter may want to provide service directly to its own members, such as offering babysitting for students with children during exam week. The chapter can also instill a sense of community by advertising and wearing the Psi Chi merchandise available through the website, or creating unique t-shirts or buttons.

A sense of group cohesion can lead to a number of tangible benefits. First, group cohesion is known to enhance member identification with the group as well as commitment to the group (Levine & Moreland, 1998). Having members with high levels of commitment will help to ensure preservation of the group. Group cohesion also has important implications for task performance. People who bond together are more likely to accomplish collective goals (Gully, Devine, & Whitney, 1995). Thus, establishing a sense of belonging and cohesion within the chapter is likely to enhance the group's overall success.

Closing Thoughts
Advising is a privilege with responsibility, but it can also be an exciting adventure. Advisors will face many challenges such as establishing the right amount of control or finding the balance between a task-oriented versus person-oriented focus. A bit of self-examination can help advisors identify their own leadership style, in order to utilize strengths and improve weaknesses. Advisors may find that their leadership styles evolve over time, and reflect personal and professional growth.

During this process, it may be helpful for advisors to keep their eyes on the big picture. Even the best chapter will have years of higher performance and years of lower performance. The ultimate goal of the chapter is to recruit, engage, promote, and support psychology students. Thus, a chapter is not measured by its list of products for a year, but by the many people throughout the years of which it is comprised--and that includes the advisor.

References
Gully, S. M., Devine, D. J., & Whitney, D. J. (1995). A meta-analysis of cohesion and performance: Effects of level of analysis and task interdependence. Small Groups Research, 26, 497-520.

Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. (1998). Small groups. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 415-469). New York: McGraw-Hill.


 

 

 


Merry J. Sleigh earned her BA in psychology and English from James Madison University (VA). In 1996, she received her PhD in developmental psychology from Virginia Tech, with a specialization in prenatal and infant development. She first served as faculty advisor to Psi Chi at George Mason University (VA), where she received the Regional Faculty Advisor Award in 2003. Dr. Sleigh teaches at Winthrop University (SC). She currently serves as Psi Chi faculty advisor and as a reviewer for the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research.

Donna Webster Nelson earned her BS and her PhD from the University of Maryland College Park. She specializes in social/personality psychology with a special interest in social cognition and applied issues. Dr. Nelson previously served as Psi Chi faculty advisor at the University of Florida. She is now an associate professor at Winthrop University (SC). In 1999, she was awarded the College of Arts & Sciences' Outstanding Advisor Award. Currently, Dr. Nelson serves as the faculty advisor to Alpha Lambda Delta, the freshman honor society.

Copyright 2005 (Volume 10, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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