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
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:
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.
- Providing a safe haven in times of distress
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?
- Fostering a secure base to promote exploration
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
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
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
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
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.