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Working with your RSO

Theory of Group Development

If you have been an advisor for an extended period of time, you may have realized that your advising style will vary over time – even within the same organization. This is due in part to the changing dynamics of the different students involved. Your advising style may also change depending on the dynamics of the group and the developmental level of the organization.

Bruce Tuckman developed a sequential model with the foundation being that groups develop through an orderly, invariant sequence of stages or phases. In 1965, Tuckman reviewed approximately fifty developmental models and research studies and developed his own model of group development. Tuckman’s model categorized group development in five identifiable sequential stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

  1. Forming – This developmental stage is devoted to issues of membership, inclusion and dependency. Members at this stage are trying to determine their place in the organization, clarify goals and group structure.
  2. Storming – This period is defined by internal conflicts around tasks and interpersonal issues also develop.
  3. Norming – The third stage is defined by a development of group cohesion where members discover new ways to work together and accept the defined acceptable rules of behavior.
  4. Performing – This is the stage in which group members work actively on the task and fulfilling their responsibilities.
  5. Adjourning – This concluding stage is not necessarily relevant to every organization. Adjournment refers to the termination or disbanding of the group as they have finished the task at hand and members will anticipate a change in their relationships.

Tuckman, Bruce W. Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin. 63(6), Jun 1965, 384-399. doi: 10.1037/h0022100

Choosing the Effective Advising Style by Kathleen Allen (Situational Advising Model)

Adaptability is tantamount to success as an advisor. Not all students are the same. Neither are all student groups, nor all advisors. Hence, the best advisors assess the developmental level of the organization, and adjust accordingly. Individual students are at one of several levels of development in an organization. Kathleen E. Allen, “Choosing the Effective Advising Style”, in the May, 1981 Programming (p. 1-3) states these stages include: Infancy, Adolescence, Young Adulthood, and Maturity. Not to be confused with actual age, these stages represent a continuum along which students develop.

  • Infancy: Students exhibit a low level of commitment, a lack of knowledge, and limited responsibility for their actions.
  • Adolescence: Students increase their programming skills, their interest, commitment, and sense of responsibility to the organization.
  • Young Adulthood: Students become competent and continue to increase in areas of commitment and responsibility.
  • Maturity: Student now show a high degree of competency in many areas and demonstrate a commitment to the group that extends into taking responsibility for their own actions as well as the group's actions.

Successful advisors will match their style with the level of the students in organization.

  • Director: Has a high concern for the end result but is not very concerned about the process. This matches with students in the infancy stage.
  • Teacher/Director: Exhibits a high concern for both product and process. Correlates with students in the adolescence stage.
  • Advisor/Teacher: Concern for product low because students handle this when in the young adulthood stage; high concern for process. Correlates with students in the young adulthood stage.
  • Consultant: Product concern and process concern both low because students assume responsibility in both areas. Students at this point are in the maturity stage.

Allen, K. (1981). Choosing the effective advising style. Programming, 1-3.

Eleven Skills for Advisors to Teach

As an advisor you are a role model, mentor, and teacher for the group. In your role as a teacher you can help the students develop certain skills that will help make the organization more effective and that they can use in the future.

Kathleen Allen, in the December, 1979 issue of Programming Magazine, outlined eleven skills that she recommends be taught to students through consistent, planned advising. Divided into the categories of accomplishing tasks, improving relationships, and self-improvement, her outline provides a clear, comprehensive lesson plan for advisors to utilize in their efforts toward student skill development.

Skills for Accomplishing Tasks

    1. Problem Solving: the ability to solve problems creatively. The process includes these components: identify the real problem, assess all components of the problem, weigh what is relevant, pursue alternatives, and identify a solution. Example: developing a policy.
    2. Planning and Organization: the ability to set goals and coordinate a variety of human and material resources to accomplish these goals. Example: producing a specific event.
    3. Delegating: the ability to identify or develop a task, and then share the responsibility, authority, resources, and information needed to accomplish it. Example: committee leader assigning a member a task.
    4. Decision-making: the ability to evaluate existing information and to be willing and confident enough to make a choice of what should be done. Example: choosing a speaker for a lecture.
    5. Financial Management: the ability to plan, develop, and implement a budget, including cost and expense estimates, budget implementation, and budget evaluation. Example: implementing a budget for each event.

Skills for Improving Relationships

    1. Persuasion: the ability to identify our own opinions and use logic and communication to change the opinions of others. Example: choosing between two programs.
    2. Relationship-building: the process of creating, developing, and maintaining connections between groups or individuals. Example: scheduling frequent casual meetings with organization members.
    3. Adaptability: the ability to cope with a variety of situations and kinds of people. Example: working with people with different cultural backgrounds or values.

Skills for Self-Improvement

  1. Stress Tolerance: the ability to cope with taxing situations, while getting the job done and having a satisfying life. Example: performing leadership responsibilities while anxious about a personal relationship.
  2. Initiative: the ability to take responsibility for originating new projects, ability to think and act without being urged, the ability to develop new ideas or methods. Example: initiating a recruitment campaign for new members.
  3. Risk-taking: the willingness to try something new or make a decision without the assurance of success or improvement. Example: planning a program that has not been attempted before.

20 Tips for Advisors to Increase Organizational Productivity

  1. Know what the students expect of you as an Advisor.
  2. Let the organization and individual members know what you expect of them.
  3. Express a sincere interest in the organization and its mission. Stress the importance of each individual’s contribution to the whole.
  4. Assist the organization in setting realistic, attainable goals. Ensure beginning success as much as possible, but allow the responsibility and implementation of events to lie primarily with the organization.
  5. Have the goals or objectives of the organization firmly in mind. Know the purposes of the organization and know what things will need to be accomplished to meet the goals.
  6. Assist the organization in achieving its goals. Understand why people become involved. Learn strengths and emphasize them. Help the organization learn through involvement by providing opportunities.
  7. Know and understand the students with whom you are working. Different organizations require different approaches.
  8. Assist the organization in determining the needs of the people the organization is serving.
  9. Express a sincere interest in each member. Encourage everyone to be responsible.
  10. Assist the members in understanding the organization’s dynamics and human interaction. Recognize that at times the process is more important than the content.
  11. Realize the importance of the peer group and its effect on each member’s participation or lack thereof. Communicate that each individual’s efforts are needed and appreciated.
  12. Assist the organization in developing a system by which they can evaluate their progress. Balance task orientation with social needs of members.
  13. Use a reward system and recognition system for work well done.
  14. Develop a style that balances active and passive organization membership.
  15. Be aware of the various roles that you will have: clarifier, consultant, counselor, educator, facilitator, friend, information source, mentor, and role model.
  16. Do not allow yourself to be placed in the position of chairperson.
  17. Be aware of institutional power structure—both formal and informal. Discuss institutional developments and policies with members.
  18. Provide continuity for the organization from semester to semester (not mandatory but encouraged).
  19. Challenge the organization to grow and develop. Encourage independent thinking and decision-making.
  20. Be creative and innovative. Keep a sense of humor!

(Adapted from M.J. Michael) Office of Student Leadership Development Programs at East Carolina University, as shown in ACPA Advisor Manual 6.2009

Mitigating Risk

As an advisor of a student organization, you are the university's representative regarding the organization's activities. As such, you are expected to give reasonable and sound advice to your organization about such things as programs, use of facilities and operational procedures. If you have reason to question an action taken by the organization, express your concern directly to the organization in person, and follow up in writing, including the date, a suggested alternative to the questionable action, a warning, etc.

It is important to remember that, in general, while we need to be concerned about liability, we can seriously damage the educational process by being paranoid about it. Just as there is no specific statement that explains faculty liability for every possible classroom incident, there is none that covers all the possible situations student organizations might encounter. If you have concerns about a situation unique to your organization or to a specific event sponsored by the organization you advise, please contact the Center for Student Involvement.

Although there is no way to completely eliminate risk and legal liability associated with a program or event, there are ways to reduce risk and provide a safer environment for program participants. Here are a few things that your organization can do to identify and reduce risk:

  • Complete a Pre-Event Planning Form to clarify the needs and expectations of participants.
  • Identify specific risks involved in the event. These could include physical risks (such as an event with physical activity) and liability risks (such as events involving alcohol, minors, or travel).
  • Identify options for reducing risks by including, but not limited to:
    • Hiring a third party vendor or contractor
    • Purchasing additional liability insurance
    • Preparing liability waivers, if necessary.
    • Providing advanced training
    • Assuming a ‘worst case scenario’ and preparing for it in order to reduce the likelihood of it occurring
    • Utilizing waivers that outline the specific nature and risk associated with the event.
    • Canceling the event if the conditions are dangerous or the group is not prepared to assume full responsibility for the risk involved
  • Assess the capability of the group to manage risk.
  • Identify the challenges in managing risk, as well as resources to assist in your planning.
  • Develop a plan of action in reducing risk.
  • Communicate with everyone involved (officers, members, advisors, participants, facilities, and staff)

ACPA Commission for Student Involvement (2005). Advisor Manual. Liability and risk reduction.

Training and Transition

One of the most important functions of an Advisor is to assist in the transition from one set of RSO officers to the next. As the stability of an RSO, the Advisor has seen changes, knows what works and can help maintain continuity. Investing time in a good officer transition early on will mean less time spent throughout the year nursing new officers through the semester. The key to a successful transition is making sure new officers know their jobs BEFORE they take office. Expectations should be clearly defined. There are a number of ways to conduct the officer transition. The following examples demonstrate two commonly used methods.

The Team Effort
The team effort involves the outgoing officer board, the Advisor, and the incoming officer board. This method involves a retreat or series of meetings where outgoing officers work with incoming officers on:

  1. Past records/notebooks for their office and updating those together.
  2. Discussion should take place regarding previous year projects that have been completed; upcoming/ incomplete projects; challenges and setbacks; and anything the new officers need to know to do their jobs effectively.

The Advisor’s role may be to:

  • Facilitate discussion and be a sounding board for ideas.
  • Organize and provide the structure of a retreat.
  • Offer suggestions on various questions.
  • Refrain from telling new officers what they should do.
  • Fill in the blanks. If an outgoing officer doesn’t know how something was done, or doesn’t have records to pass on to the new officer, you can help that officer by providing the information he or she doesn’t have. The Advisor’s role in this process is to provide historical background when needed, help keep goals specific, attainable and measurable and provide advice on policies and procedures.

One-on-One Advisor Training with Officers
While it is ideal to have the outgoing officer team assist in training the incoming officers, often it is left up to the Advisor to educate the incoming officers. In this case, there should be a joint meeting of the new officers. The Advisor should then meet individually with each officer; examine the notebook of the previous officer (or create a new one).

The notebook should include items such as forms the officer may need to use; copies of previous meeting agendas; and a copy of the RSO’s constitution and bylaws.

Talk about what the officers hope to accomplish in the forthcoming year. Assess the officer’s role in the RSO. What are the expectations of each position? What are the student’s expectations of the position and his/her goals?

ACPA Commission for Student Involvement (2005).  Advisor Manual. Officer transition.