The science behind great mentoring

By Jan Murray on Friday 31st January 2020

An effective mentoring relationship can be a powerful, life-changing experience for both mentor and mentee. In order for mentors to provide the proper support to their mentees they need to have the tools and training to do this. Our mentoring platform is designed to do just that. Here we share three key science- based lessons to help create strong, effective mentoring relationships.

Lesson No. 1: Lessons from parent-child relationships

The workplace can often be stressful, yet research has shown this can be reduced by a positive mentoring relationship. A 2018 study found “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression” among graduate students. Yet, the authors found the “data indicates that strong, supportive and positive mentoring relationships between graduate students and their advisors correlate significantly with less anxiety and depression.” This doesn't just apply to students, but also in the workplace.

According to Geoff MacDonald, a professor at the University of Toronto in Canada, research on attachment and parent-child relationships can offer some important clues on how mentors can build a relationship that buffers rather than contributes to stress. This research points to three related but distinct approaches:

  1. Authoritativeness
    This is a firm and supportive approach, often successful in parent/child relationships. Mentors can use this approach with mentees by being engaged and maintaining high standards while providing consistent support and encouragement. By setting challenging yet achievable goals, mentors signal their confidence in their mentees' potential. Great mentors go a step further by providing the necessary guidance and support to help their mentees succeed.
  2. Providing a safe haven in times of distress
    Mentees often need someone they can turn to when they are struggling with challenges. Mentors should therefore ask themselves whether they provide a safe haven for their mentees. Are they comfortable coming to you when they have a problem or encounter an obstacle? Do you listen and provide support?
  3. Fostering a secure base to promote exploration
    Finally, research suggests that providing a secure base is critical for promoting exploration, risk-taking, and discovery—all critical elements of a successful mentoring relationship and career. Mentors need to take an interest in their mentees' goals and encourage them to accept challenges and take risks, as well as provide guidance on how to overcome obstacles. But, much like parenting, it is also critical that mentors accept and encourage mentees' sense of independence when the time is right —not micromanaging them or refusing to let them go.

Lesson No. 2: Convey belief in mentees' abilities and potential

Mentees watch mentors very carefully—not only because they are looking for role models, but also because they are trying to understand what their mentors think about them and others.

Mentors should think hard about the types of values and beliefs they communicate to mentees, both verbally and non-verbally. To make their beliefs explicit, mentors should share them openly—particularly if it is the belief that everyone has the potential for success. It could also mean planning out mentee goals, explaining what they need to do to get there, and providing these guidelines and support early on in the relationship. Throughout this process, it will help if the mentor expresses confidence that their mentee has the potential to achieve these high standards.

Lesson No. 3: Help your mentees embrace failure as growth

Failure is a natural part of life for seasoned professionals. But mentors often forget what this feels like for people who are new to the field, many of whom have excelled consistently at previous stages of their education. To make matters worse, these days it is easier than ever to see career success stories—people are posting publications, announcing awards, and celebrating new positions on social media. But just like celebrities who post airbrushed selfies on Instagram, it masks the true pathway people take in their career. That's why mentors need to remind mentees that critical feedback and failure are a normal part of the process.

One way to do this is to cultivate a growth mindset among your mentees. Praise hard work, effort, and improvement, and reward things mentees can control rather than outcomes that hinge more on outside forces and chance. By focusing on growth—and the inevitable process of failure—we can normalise how career progression works, which can make it seem far less daunting. It is also critical to talk about failure if we ever hope to learn from our mistakes.

There are no simple answers or formulas to address the countless challenges of mentoring. Any model requires constant evolution and tailored feedback to support the specific needs and background of each mentee. But it's well worth the investment. When mentors help their mentees flourish, it not only moves the mentee to the next level; it is also very rewarding for the mentor.

This article is a summary of an article that first appeared in Science magazine by By Jay J. Van Bavel , June Gruber, Leah H. Somerville, Neil A. Lewis, Jr.

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