< Do Mentoring Programs Work?
Do Mentoring Programs Work?

The Importance of Mentoring

Organizations develop and implement various career management practices in an effort to support employees throughout their careers. Mentoring (or coaching) programs are one way that organizations help employees acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to perform their current job successfully. They are also often used to increase employees’ chances for promotion.

The research on mentoring has explored two types of programs, informal and formal. Traditionally, mentoring programs have involved an intense interpersonal exchange between a senior experienced colleague (mentor) and a less experienced junior colleague (protégé). In these exchanges, the mentor provided support, direction, and feedback regarding career plans and personal development. These traditional mentoring relationships were typically informal, occurring spontaneously and without organizational involvement. Thus, informal mentoring relationships were not managed, formally structured, or recognized by the organization. The primary targets of informal mentoring programs were junior managers and professionals.

To keep pace with changes in the workplace, many organizations have shifted from relying on informal mentoring programs to implementing formal mentoring programs. Changes in the organizational environment such as a) increased diversity in the workforce composition, b) changes in employment legislation, c) increased team-based work arrangements, d) organizational downsizing and restructuring, and e) alternative work schedules have encouraged organizations to formalize some of these programs. To provide mentoring to a larger segment of the employee population requires organizations to establish and manage formal mentoring programs. These formal programs tend to create relationships that are typically less intense and shorter lived than spontaneously occurring mentoring relationships.


Are Mentoring Programs Effective?

Research suggests that mentoring can have an important positive impact on mentors, protégés, and the organization. In general, mentors in formal relationships report that they provide less mentoring than mentors in informal alliances. Likewise, protégés in these formal relationships report that they receive less mentoring than protégés in informal relationships.

However, formalizing the mentoring process may provide unbiased access to mentors, thereby reducing the difficulties that diverse employees often have in securing a mentor. Furthermore, when compared with non-mentored employees, protégés in formal and informal mentoring relationships reported a) enjoying more organizational rewards, b) an increased ability to remove organizational barriers, and c) increased upward mobility. Thus, it appears that both formal and informal mentoring programs can be beneficial.

When evaluating the effectiveness of mentoring programs, organizations frequently look at the benefits gained by the program participants and the organization. Below is a listing of common ways to evaluate the success of mentoring programs.

Benefits to the Protégé
When the mentoring process is successful, protégés experience:

  • Faster promotion rates
  • Higher compensation levels
  • Accelerated career mobility
  • Higher levels of job, pay and career satisfaction
  • Higher levels of self-esteem
  • Decreased role stress, strain, and role conflict
  • Fulfilled career goals
  • Higher levels of citizenship behaviors
  • Greater ability to exert influence
  • Increased career expectations (progress and prospects)
  • Positive feelings about the mentoring experience
  • Greater organizational commitment and sense of affiliation
  • Enhanced knowledge and skills
  • Decreased intentions to quit
  • Decreased work alienation
  • Greater perceptions of fairness

Benefits to the Mentor
When the mentoring process is successful, mentors experience:
  • Greater internal satisfaction and fulfillment
  • Stimulation by the protégé’s ideas
  • An increased opportunity to make productive use of his own knowledge and expertise
  • An opportunity to learn in new ways
  • Organizational recognition for his capabilities as a teacher and advisor
  • Increased understanding / empathy towards diverse groups
  • Loyal support of the protégé
  • Improvement of his own managerial skills
  • Career enhancement and psychic rewards
  • Rejuvenation/exhilaration from the protégé’s energy
  • Positive feelings about the mentoring experience
  • Esteem among peers and supervisors
  • Greater willingness to mentor again

Benefits to the Organization
When the mentoring process is successful, organizations experience:
  • Increased employee productivity
  • Higher job competence
  • Reduced turnover intent
  • Lower turnover rates
  • Better employee socialization to organizational norms
  • Enhanced organizational commitment by employees
  • The use of an additional resource for developing managerial talent
  • The use of an additional tool for developing women and minorities

What Factors Foster Mentoring?

Whether your organization has a formal mentoring program, or informal mentoring relationships, research has identified many factors that can facilitate the success of mentoring/coaching programs. Some of these factors are discussed below.

Mentor-Protégé Relationship Factors

Mentor-protégé relationship factors are those factors that are unique to the mentoring relationship. These factors impact both how the relationship is formed and the quality of the mentoring provided.

In Practice...

How does this research impact your organization?
  • Participation in mentoring programs should be voluntary. Forcing employees to participate often increases the chances that the program will fail.
  • Where possible, let the mentor/protégé dyads form naturally. Even if you are developing a formal program, look for ways to provide opportunities for relationships to occur naturally. For example, you could establish a community of practice in your organization to create opportunities for employees who might otherwise not find a mentor.

Mentor-Protégé Experience Factors

Mentor-protégé experience factors refer to the amount of time and experience the mentor has, and the length of time the dyad has been together. These factors impact both how the relationship is formed and the quality of the mentoring provided.

  • Number of Prior Relationships

    Previous experience with mentoring tends to make better mentors. Mentors who are more experienced and who have been involved in a greater number of mentoring relationships report providing greater levels of career guidance than less experienced mentors. Individuals with prior mentor or protégé experience also report a greater willingness to mentor than those without the experience of being either a protégé or a mentor. Prior experience with mentoring also seems to help people find mentors in the future. This may, in part, be related to the fact that those with previous mentoring relationships have learned from their experience, and this might help overcome the barriers to acquiring a mentor in the future.

  • Length of Time in Current Relationship

    To a small degree, mentors who spend more time in an existing mentor-protégé relationship report providing greater levels of role modeling and career guidance. For example, mentors in longer lasting relationships report facilitating to a greater degree their protégé’s career advancement: they provide the protégé with greater levels of exposure and visibility, increased protection, additional sponsorship, and more challenging assignments. Similarly, protégés in longer lasting relationships report receiving greater psychosocial support from their mentors. Psychosocial support in the form of acceptance and confirmation, counseling, coaching, and social support result in protégés experiencing a greater sense of competence, an enhanced self-image, and improved work-role effectiveness. However, given the relatively weak relationship between time spent and relationship quality, it appears that new mentors can also be quite effective.

  • Similarity of Experience

    Similarity of experience is only moderately related to perceptions of mentoring support. This seems somewhat counterintuitive, but makes sense when the purpose of the relationship is considered. The aim of the mentoring relationship is to build a relationship, but more directly to provide advice, share knowledge and develop new skills. If there is no overlap whatsoever, then the mentor and protégé may lack some of the most basic skills needed to communicate (e.g., technical language, fundamental competencies). Conversely, if the mentor and protégé have too much shared experience, there is little to be gained from the relationship. Thus, there should be enough overlap of experience to enable successful communication yet not so much that there is little learning to be gained.

Mentor-Protégé Similarity Factors

Mentor-protégé trait similarity factors refer to the degree to which the mentor and the protégé are similar to one another on certain traits, such as age, gender, nationality, values, interests and personality.

  • Surface-Level Traits Similarity

    Surface-level traits refer to demographic-type traits, such as gender, race, or age. Research on demographics varies widely, but in general does not support a consistent effect on mentoring behaviors. Gender or race factors have been shown to have negligible effects on the mentoring relationship by recent meta-analyses (a meta-analysis “averages” results from all available studies). However, it does seem clear that women and minorities tend to have a more difficult time finding mentors in higher-level positions in organizations due to the fact that there may be fewer women and minorities in such positions. Participating in professional associations may increase the chances of finding a mentor. Thus, although certain sub-groups may find it challenging to locate mentoring relationships, there is no positive or negative impact per se based on the gender or race of the mentor or protégé.

    More research has examined the similarity between mentor and protégé. It seems that protégés who are not demographically similar to their mentors often report more dissatisfaction with the relationship and may be more likely to end it. Similarly, those sharing demographics have more positive outcomes. For example, protégés with mentors of the same nationality appear to receive more mentoring than protégés with mentors of a different nationality. This may be related to sharing the same cultural background, which facilitates communication among the mentor and the protégé. Differences in age between the mentor and the protégé do not seem to make a difference in the amount of mentoring, but as the protégé gets older, the amount of career mentoring received often goes down. Younger protégés tend to see their mentors as providing more role modeling and parenting functions than older protégés.

    The impact of gender-match on the mentoring relationship is unclear. Some research suggests same-gender relationships are superior. Women may obtain unique benefits from being mentored by other women. For example, female protégés with female mentors feel that they receive more social support than female protégés with male mentors. On the other hand, other studies have reported that same-gender relationships have no impact on the quality of the mentoring relationship.

  • Deep-Level Trait Similarity

    Deep-level similarities refer to shared attitudes, values, beliefs, or personality traits. As a recent meta-analysis demonstrates, averaging across dozens of studies, these factors have the single largest contribution to mentoring behaviors. Mentors and protégés with similar values, interests and personality consistently report a higher quality mentoring relationship and learning. Research strongly suggests that it may be more important for mentors and protégés to share similarities in terms of values, interests and personality over demographic factors such as gender. Similarity in these factors also seems to be more important for the quality of the mentoring relationship in shorter rather than longer mentorships. It appears to be more important for mentors and protégés to share similar values and interests in the early phases of the mentoring relationship to help establish the relationship. Yet, as time goes on, similarities among the mentors and protégés may become less important. Formal mentoring relationships are often short-term, so organizations with such programs may benefit more from matching mentors and protégés with similar values, attitudes, and personalities.

Participant Training

As most new participants have only a vague understanding of the mentoring process, orientation and training are critical to the mentoring program’s success. Training provides the participants with the knowledge, skills, and support necessary for successful involvement in the process. As both mentors and protégés must actively participate in the mentoring relationship, both should be given appropriate training. Both protégés and mentors should understand their role in the mentoring process and the responsibilities that accompany that role. Protégés should also identify what they hope to gain from the mentoring experience and communicate this expectation to the program’s facilitator and the mentor. It is imperative that protégés understand that they are responsible for their own development. They also need to have realistic expectations about what the mentoring experience can deliver. When the mentor and protégé meet, it is helpful for both members to discuss their expectations upfront. In addition, they should also establish a minimum amount of contact. Protégés with negative mentoring experiences reported mentors who neglected or intentionally excluded them from important events or did not make time for them. In contrast, protégés in programs that offered guidelines for meeting frequency reported that the programs were more effective. To make the most out of their relationship, mentors and protégés should strive for establishing an open communication system with reciprocal feedback, setting standards, goals and expectations, and building a high degree of trust among one another. In addition to understanding their role and responsibilities, mentors should receive additional training. Research has found that an ideal mentor has listening and communications skills, patience, knowledge of the organization and industry, and the ability to read and understand others. In addition to these skills, mentors need to gauge the protégés current level of development in order to provide appropriate feedback and assistance for their career progression. In sum, mentors need training in the following areas:

Mentor Training Areas
  • Empathetic listening
  • Conflict resolution and negotiation skills
  • Assertiveness
  • Teaching and motivation methods
  • Appropriate and helpful feedback methods
  • Flexible leadership
  • Understanding the protégés career development

In Practice...

How does this research impact your organization?

Don’t assume that people know what it takes to be a good mentor. An employee can have a great deal of task expertise without having commensurate skills for collaboration, training, and mentoring. Similarly, it is important to ensure that key stakeholders, mentors, and protégés have realistic expectations. Although training can be an important part of the mentoring program’s success, expectation management is still critical.

Tip For reviews of books about mentoring, see  Mentoring.


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