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Can We Make Mentoring Extraordinary?

Interview with Dr. Belle Rose Ragins

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Have you heard great mentoring stories from others, but found that your experiences have often fallen short? Have you hoped to be a great mentor to others, but have found you’re not sure how to go about achieving that? Or perhaps the idea of seeking a mentor feels daunting to you? If so, you’re not alone.

“When we talk about the relationships that have made a real difference in our lives – those that have been there at critical times, helped us on our path, helped us grow our careers – it’s been mentors. These relationships can be the most fulfilling and transformative experiences we have,” shared Dr. Belle Rose Ragins, a Professor of Management at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, when I had the privilege of interviewing her recently. “But just like any kind of relationship, mentoring relationships fall on a continuum of quality – from very low to average to very high quality. The challenge for workplaces is to help move these relationships along the continuum. From ordinary to extraordinary.”

So, what is it that makes a mentoring experience extraordinary?

“The extraordinary mentoring experiences give us safe havens. They give us space to find our authentic selves and the courage to forge new careers and new identities, and to find our space within the organization,” said Belle. “This is particularly important for those from marginalised groups who face a number of barriers to advancement. A high-quality mentoring relationship can not only buffer protégés against toxic, discriminatory climates, but also present eye-opening and awareness-provoking experiences for the mentor, who can hear firsthand what the organization is like for a person who does not have the same privilege and power. This can be so powerful. And it can have ripple effects.”

So, what kind of relationship should we be seeking with a mentor or striving for as a mentor?

Belle helped paint a picture that, unlike the Yoda-like image that is often conjured when we think of a mentor (i.e., sitting on a pedestal handing down knowledge), a high-quality mentoring relationship is characterized by mutuality. Belle’s research found that high-quality mentors are willing to be vulnerable, to share, and to disclose their own learning journeys with you in the interest of building psychological safety and fuelling your mutual growth. They ask good questions, act as a sounding board, and empower you. Mentors value your differences and are wonderful empathetic listeners who don’t judge. They are driven by the desire to help you, without an expectation that you will owe them anything in return, and they take the time to be accessible to you.

It’s important to note, Belle highlights, that mentoring relationships don’t just happen. They tend to arise from “mentoring episodes” – short-term interactions where someone provides you with support, guidance, or affirmation – that occur often enough that both people start to recognize in time that they have grown a mentoring relationship.

Belle suggested the following ways people and workplaces can create mentoring episodes and high-quality mentoring relationships:

  • Seek out a mentor – Think about who might be a good person to mentor you.  Ask them out for a coffee or lunch and seek their guidance on a project or an idea to see if a mentoring episode naturally emerges.  If they sit down and really listen to you and the chemistry feels good, let them know how much you valued their guidance, ask their permission to seek them out again in the future, and allow these mentoring episodes to shape your relationship.
  • Find a protégé – Look around your work environment for the employees who you think have potential. They may even be struggling and not the highest performers, but you see their possibilities and connect with them.  If you feel there is a way you can assist them, reach out to them and offer your support.  If you both find value in this mentoring episode, offer to be available to them in the future if they need further assistance and allow these mentoring episodes to shape your relationship. Also, challenge yourself to pick someone who is not just a potential “mini-me,” but someone whose unique experience you can learn from and who might put you outside of your comfort zone. We all too often only choose people who reminds us of ourselves.
  • Create a formal mentoring program – Build a high-quality formal mentoring program by carefully matching mentors and protégés based on the needs and goals of your workplace.  For example, a formal mentoring program can be a very effective component of your diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives by creating valuable relationships between employees from dominant and non-dominant groups. Be sure to select mentors who are genuinely motivated and give them the resources and support they need to be competent mentors. Monitor the relationships and be willing to reassign people if it’s not working. Evaluate the impact these relationships are having on people’s careers.

So, how will you generate mentoring episodes in your workplace?

To discover more evidence-based practices to help people thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.  Also, to hear more about Belle’s wonderful research see this article that Belle has kindly made available to those who wish to learn more about extraordinary mentoring relationships at work.

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