There are many different ways in which you can help employees at work. For instance you can be a role model for others, you can sponsor a particular staff member, you can train people, you can coach them, and last (but is it least?) you can mentor them. Mentoring typically involves a more experienced and/or older person providing a supportive relationship for a less experienced and/or younger person. Broadly speaking there are three areas where mentoring has been widely applied: youth; academic and workplace mentoring.
Mentoring is one of those ideas that seem intuitively sensible and worthy of widespread implementation. But how effective is mentoring? Does it lead to any positive outcomes? Anyone who has been involved in mentoring programs will appreciate that they can be time consuming both in terms of the effort put in by the mentor, as well as any training or compliance hurdles that need to be overcome in getting the mentor and mentee together.
There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that mentoring schemes are set up in a moment of enthusiasm, which eventually wanes over time as other matters become priorities, or because the mentor sometimes feels unrewarded, or worse exploited by the arrangement. There is also the concern that mentoring arrangements are seen as cheap alternatives to providing proper induction training or on-going support for people who need it.
Against all of that negativity there are large numbers of stories, many of them quite inspirational about the power of mentoring and particular mentors to effect immense positive changes in individuals who perhaps have failed to respond to other forms of intervention.
The evidence is now in thanks to a large-scale meta-analysis of all of the mentoring research in the Youth, Educational and Workplace domains. Lillian Eby and her colleagues from the University of Georgia present their findings in the current edition of the Journal of Vocational Behavior. They wanted to check out six key assumptions that mentoring is associated with: 1. positive behavioural outcomes; 2. positive attitudinal outcomes; 3. positive health-related outcomes; 4. relationship outcomes; 5 positive motivational outcomes; and 6. positive career outcomes.
The researchers found 112 studies over the last 20 years that met their strict criteria of reporting results comparing people who had undergone mentoring with comparable people who had not received the mentoring. (There are a huge number of studies attesting to the value of mentoring that focus only on those that received the mentoring and strictly speaking they are flawed because you cannot be sure that others who did not receive the mentoring do not also show positive change).
There was support for each of the research team’s assumptions – mentoring was related to favourable behavioural, attitudinal, health, interpersonal, motivational and career outcomes. Indeed their results indicated overall that mentoring is often associated with a “wide range” of favourable outcomes for the protégés.
Perhaps most relevant to us, the results suggest that mentors may assist in the skill development and professional networking opportunities for protégés. These are known to be linked to career success in terms of salary, promotions and job offers. They may also provide an informal form of career counselling for protégés.
This all sounds fantastic, however the authors strike two notes of caution. Firstly the positive impact of mentoring was usually only very small, and secondly, as the research stands, there is very little good evidence to show that mentoring is the cause of these outcomes. While the presence of mentoring is a likely reason for these positive outcomes, appeals to the research will not support such a strong conclusion. Mentoring was most successful in workplace and educational settings.
Overall, the message is that if you are offered mentoring at work, take the opportunity because it is more likely to benefit you than harm your career. However if you are an employer looking for a single solution to your career development problems, mentoring may be part of that solution, but it is no panacea.