MentoringMentoring within the workplace is typically described as a relationship between two individuals, usually a senior and junior employee, in which the senior employee takes the junior employee “under his or her wing” to teach the junior employee about his or her job, introduce the junior employee to contacts, orient the employee to the industry and organization, and address social and personal issues that may arise on the job. The mentoring relationship is different from other organizational relationships (e.g., supervisor-subordinate) in that the mentoring parties may or may not formally work together; the relationship is typically not sanctioned by the organization; the relationship usually lasts longer than most organizational relationships; the issues addressed during the course of the relationship may include nonwork issues; and the bond between the mentor and protege is usually closer and stronger than those of other organizational relationships.

Mentoring relationships are by nature developmental and therefore are thought to be a critical career development activity. For example, mentoring relationships play a prominent role in career and life stage theories. Establishing mentoring relationships with others is a critical developmental task faced by individuals during the early career years. The advice and guidance of a mentor can be an invaluable resource as individuals seek to establish themselves during this career stage. Mentoring is also a key task during later stages of career development. Specifically, serving as a mentor to others during the later career years provides a sense of accomplishment and serves as a means for the older worker to contribute to future generations.

The power of mentoring relationships has also been widely discussed beyond the academic literature. Popular business leaders such as Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca have publicly credited their success to having a mentor. In addition, reports suggest that over 75 percent of executives indicate that having a mentor played a key role in their careers. Career counselors often advise individuals to cultivate a relationship with a mentor, and many organizations encourage the formation of mentoring relationships between organizational members.

Mentoring Functions and Stages

Mentors provide two major functions to their proteges. Career-related junctions focus on success and advancement within the organization and include sponsorship, coaching, exposure and visibility, protection, and challenging assignments. Psychosocial functions focus on the enhancement of sense of identity, competence, and effectiveness in the professional role and include role modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling, and friendship. Empirical research based on factor-analytic studies supports the existence of these two overarching mentoring functions.

Mentoring relationships are theorized to progress through four distinct stages over time. The first stage is initiation. In this stage, the mentor and the protege are just beginning the relationship and learning about each other. If the relationship matures into a mentor-ship, the second phase, known as cultivation, begins. This is the most active phase of the mentorship, during which the greatest amount of career and psychosocial mentoring is thought to be provided. It is during the cultivation phase that the most learning occurs. This is the longest phase of the mentorship and is expected to last from two to five years. As the needs of the mentor and the protege evolve, the partnership enters the separation phase. During this phase, the protege begins to assert independence, and the mentor comes to believe he or she has no additional knowledge to share with or guidance to provide to the protege. This phase is thought to last from 6 to 24 months. The final phase of the mentoring relationship is referred to as redefinition. This is when the relationship changes into one of peers or colleagues. Little research has been conducted that provides a direct test of these phases. However, there is some evidence that psychosocial and career mentoring does increase from the initiation phase of the mentorship into the subsequent phases.

The Measurement of Mentoring

Much of the mentoring research is based on two types of studies. One type compares those with mentoring experience (proteges or mentors) versus those without mentoring experiences (non-proteges or non-mentors) on some variable of interest. Mentoring experience is typically operationalized as a dichotomous variable (yes or no) based on responses to a screening question that includes a definition of a mentoring relationship. That is, research participants are provided with a definition of mentoring and then are asked to respond yes or no as to whether they have ever been in such a relationship.

The second common type of mentoring study examines the relationship between mentoring provided and other variables of interest. In this case, those that report mentoring experience also report on the degree to which mentoring was provided during the course of the relationship. Several measures exist in the literature to assess mentoring provided. Mentoring provided is usually examined at the level of Kathy Kram’s two primary mentoring functions described earlier, psychosocial and career mentoring. However, exceptions to this exist. Several measures separate mentoring behavior into more discrete categories (e.g., role-modeling is examined as a separate function), while others combine career mentoring and psychosocial support into a single measure.

Mentoring Benefits

Much has been written about the benefits of mentoring. Mentoring relationships are touted as beneficial for proteges, mentors, and organizations. To date, most research has focused on career success outcomes and benefits for the protege. Career success outcomes can be grouped into those that are objective and those that are subjective. Objective career outcomes are tangible, such as promotion and compensation. In contrast, subjective outcomes are affective and less tangible, such as career and job satisfaction. Recent meta-analytic research supports the notion that mentoring relates to both objective and subjective career benefits for proteges. Specifically, individuals who are mentored advance more rapidly in the organization, earn higher salaries, have greater job satisfaction, and have fewer intentions to leave the organization. Being mentored also has been associated with other career-related variables. Specifically, those who have been mentored report greater career planning, career involvement, career motivation, and career self-efficacy than those who have not been mentored. Mentoring also serves as a form of social support and has been positively associated with employee socialization. Although limited research exists regarding other outcomes, being mentored has been also associated with less stress, more organizational citizenship behavior, and less family interference with work.

Although the benefits of mentoring for proteges seem to have been firmly established, it is important to keep in mind that most research has been cross-sectional. It is commonly assumed that mentoring leads to advantages such as greater career outcomes, but the direction of the relationship is uncertain. For example, it is also possible that those who possess the skills to obtain greater career benefits also possess the skills to attract a mentor. Until more long-term longitudinal studies are conducted, alternative causal directions cannot be ruled out.

Much less research has focused on the benefits of mentoring for the mentor. Qualitative studies examining the benefits of mentoring others suggest that mentors achieve personal satisfaction from passing knowledge and skills on to others, exhilaration from the fresh energy provided by proteges, improved job performance by receiving a new perspective on the organization from proteges, loyalty and support from proteges, and organizational recognition. The few quantitative studies that have been conducted yielded similar findings, indicating that mentors report that mentoring others provides personal satisfaction and improved workgroup performance. In a study of the expected benefits of being a mentor, five categories of benefits were identified, including rewarding experience, improved job performance, loyal base of support, recognition by others, and generativity (that is, leaving a legacy to future generations).

Researchers are only beginning to examine how mentoring others may relate to more tangible career benefits to the mentor, such as increased promotion rates and salary. Preliminary research shows that after controlling for variables commonly associated with objective career success, those who have mentored others report greater salary and rates of promotion than do those without any experience as mentors. Similar to research regarding proteges, longitudinal studies are needed to better ascertain the causal direction of the relationship.

Mentoring is also thought to provide benefits to the organization. However, organizational benefits have primarily been inferred based on individual benefits. For example, mentoring can have organizational benefits by reducing individual employee turnover, enhancing employee productivity, and increasing the retention of women and minorities. There are no empirical data demonstrating that mentoring relates to organizational-level outcomes, such as firm performance. In addition, while formal mentoring programs are frequently touted as a way to attract employees to the organization and as an effective mechanism for facilitating succession planning, research supporting this assertion does not exist in the published literature. In short, much work remains to be done examining the impact of mentoring at the organizational level.

Negative Aspects of Mentoring

Recent research has demonstrated that like any form of interpersonal relationship, mentorships can also have dysfunctional aspects. Even generally effective and healthy mentorships may be marked by negative experiences that range from the relatively minor (e.g., petty disagreement) to the malicious in nature (e.g., revenge or sabotage). Protege accounts of negative mentoring experiences include tyrannical or manipulative behavior on the part of the mentor, mentors who lack technical or interpersonal skills, a mismatch in terms of values and personality, overprotection and paternalism by mentors, and neglect by the mentor. Proteges who report negative mentoring experiences also report less learning within the relationship, less relational quality, and weaker perceptions of relational complementarity. Negative experiences are not limited to the protege, as mentors also report encountering problems related to mentoring others. These include a drain on time, difficulty dealing with proteges who have performance problems, proteges who are unwilling to learn, protege deception and betrayal, and concerns regarding jealousy or favoritism. This line of research is important in that it serves as a useful reminder that although mentoring is generally a beneficial career development process, it also has potential drawbacks and challenges that should be recognized.

Factors Related to Mentorship Processes


A considerable amount of research has been devoted to examining the impact of gender on mentorships. Lack of access to mentors has been offered as one explanation for the disparity between men and women in terms of advancement into senior leadership positions. However, men and women generally report similar levels of experience as proteges. Although men and women may have similar access to mentorships, once in a mentoring relationship, the type of mentoring provided may differ. The results of research examining this issue are mixed, with some studies finding differences and others finding none. When gender differences are detected, the results lean toward women reporting more psychosocial mentoring than men and men reporting more career-related mentoring than women.

There is some evidence that the gender of the mentor may matter in terms of the type of mentoring provided and the benefits accrued. For example, female mentors have been found to provide more psychosocial mentoring than have male mentors. In addition, having a male mentor has been associated with greater career outcomes, such as compensation, than having a female mentor. One explanation offered for this finding is that male mentors are more likely to be in power positions in the organization and thus have greater opportunity to aid the career development of their proteges.

The dyadic composition of the mentorship is also an important consideration. Theory concerning diversified mentoring relationships suggests that the specific dyadic composition of the mentorship impacts the level of mentoring support provided and satisfaction with the mentorship. That is, not only the gender of the mentor or of the protege is important but also the interaction between the two. For example, although findings are inconsistent across studies, there is some evidence that greater psychosocial mentoring occurs in same-gender mentorships than in cross-gender mentorships. However, it is interesting to note that the majority of cross-gender mentorships comprise male mentors with female proteges. Female mentors with male proteges are typically a small percentage of mentorship pairs.


There has been considerably less research examining race and mentoring than that examining gender and mentoring. Similar to the findings regarding gender, there is little evidence that minorities are less likely to have mentoring experience than are non-minorities. There is no consistent evidence to suggest that the amount of career or psychosocial mentoring provided differs across race. However, the race of the mentor does appear to make a difference. Research has shown that Black employees with White mentors earn more compensation than do Black employees with Black mentors.

Research also indicates that proteges in same-race mentorships report greater psychosocial support than do proteges in cross-race mentorships. There is some evidence that individuals experience more interpersonal comfort in same-race and same-gender mentor-ships than in cross-race and cross-gender mentorships and that this accounts for the greater psychosocial mentoring reported by proteges. It should also be noted that when cross-race mentoring relationships are studied, the majority comprise non-minority mentors paired with minority proteges.

One factor that should be considered regarding the research on race is that often because of small samples, different minorities are grouped together and analyses are conducted that examine minorities versus non-minorities. Thus, the extent to which findings generalize to all minorities is not certain. In addition, research that has focused on a single race has been almost exclusively on Black Americans. We have limited knowledge regarding cross-race issues for other minority groups, such as Asian Americans and Hispanics/Latinos.

Protege Attributes

Some research has indicated that dispositional characteristics relate to the likelihood that one will engage in a mentoring relationship. Mentoring researchers have identified several personality characteristics related to protege-initiated mentorships. Individuals who have an internal locus of control (those who believe that they are in control of life events) and are high self-monitors (those who modify their behavior to fit the situation) have been found to be more likely to initiate mentoring relationships than have individuals who have an external locus of control and are low self-monitors. Research also indicates that individuals higher in need for achievement are more likely to report having a mentor than are individuals lower in need for achievement. Relatedly, the ambition-to-succeed aspect of the Type A personality has been positively related to protege-initiated mentoring.

While some protege attributes relate to their likeli­hood of being mentored, some research also suggests that mentors look for certain attributes in proteges to be mentored. Social exchange theory suggests that mentors will look for proteges thought to bring desir­able attributes into the relationship in an effort to max­imize their rewards from the relationship. Consistent with the social exchange perspective, research has found that mentors prefer proteges who possess strong potential for achievement, show favorable past perfor­mance, and are willing to learn and accept feedback.

Mentor Attributes

Research has shown that several factors relate to the propensity or willingness to serve as a mentor to others. One consistent finding is that someone with previous mentoring experience, either as a protege or as a mentor, is more willing to be a mentor to others than someone with no previous mentoring experience. There is also evidence that dispositional factors relate to the willingness to mentor others. Individuals who possess a more pro-social personality (are generally helpful and empathetic toward others) are more likely to have experience as mentors and are more likely to report willingness to mentor others. In addition, internal locus of control and upward striving have been associated with willingness to mentor others. The relationship between gender and willingness to mentor others has also been examined. Although women have reported more barriers to becoming a mentor to others than have men, most research shows that they are equally willing to do so.

A limited amount of research has examined mentor individual differences that relate to the degree of mentoring provided. One study has found that individuals higher in openness to experience report providing more mentoring than those lower in openness to experience. Learning goal orientation by mentors (the propensity to view challenges as opportunities for growth and development) also has been positively linked with mentoring provided. Recent research has examined the motives that mentors report for mentoring others and how this relates to mentoring behavior. Mentors motivated to mentor others for self-enhancement reasons appear to be more likely to provide career-related mentoring, whereas mentors motivated by the intrinsic satisfaction that mentoring brings report providing more psychosocial mentoring.

Very limited research has been conducted to examine what attributes proteges look for in mentors. The research that does exist suggests that proteges prefer mentors with strong interpersonal skills, a broad knowledge of the organization, and powerful positions within the organization.

Perceived Similarity

In addition to examining the impact of mentor-protege similarity in terms of demographic characteristics such as race and gender, some mentoring research has examined perceived similarity in terms of attitudes, values, personality, interests, and work styles. Perceived mentor-protege similarity has been consistently associated with greater mentoring provided and relationship quality. Results show that proteges who perceive that their mentors are more similar to themselves are more satisfied with the relationships and report receiving more mentoring than do proteges who perceive that their mentors are less similar to themselves. Likewise, mentors with proteges perceived to be more similar to themselves report more high-quality mentoring relationships than do mentors with proteges perceived to be less similar to themselves.

It is important to emphasize that this research is based on perceptions of similarity. Research that examines actual similarity in terms of values, personality, and interests is scarce. One exception is that proteges in mentor-protege pairs who shared similar levels of learning goal orientation reported greater psychosocial and career mentoring. It is also important to note that because most existing research regarding perceived similarity is cross-sectional, it is possible that mentors and proteges in successful relationships attribute the success of the relationship to having a similar mentoring partner rather than similarity actually resulting in a more effective mentorship.

Organizational Factors

Some aspects of the organizational environment can inhibit or facilitate the occurrence of mentoring relationships. Organizations can foster mentoring relationships among employees by encouraging an organizational learning and development climate. Mentoring relationships are more likely to naturally occur and be successful when the organization fosters an environment that encourages employees to take active roles in learning from and teaching others. This can be done by recognizing and rewarding the efforts of those who mentor others, providing opportunities for junior and senior employees to interact, and helping employees develop the tools needed for coaching and counseling others.

Formal Mentoring

To capitalize on the known benefits of mentoring, many organizations have developed formal mentoring programs. Various reports estimate that up to 66 per­cent of companies may have some form of structured mentoring. Formal mentoring programs can help organizations develop and advance the careers of women and minorities who may have limited access to informal social networks, can be used as a recruitment and retention tool, can be used to help groom employees for positions of greater responsibility and expose high-potential junior employees to senior leadership, and can be used to foster cultural change.

Formal and informal mentoring relationships differ in two primary ways. One is that formal mentoring relationships occur through an assignment or matching process instigated by a third party within the organization. In contrast, informal mentoring relationships develop spontaneously through the process of mutual attraction. Second, formal mentoring relationships are usually shorter in duration than are informal mentoring relationships. While informal mentoring relationships typically last three to six years, formal mentoring relationships generally last for six months to one year.

The design and purpose of formal mentoring pro­grams can vary greatly. For example, some programs are geared primarily toward organizational newcomers, while others target high-potential employees. Some programs are highly structured, while others take a more casual approach. Most literature regarding best practices for developing and designing a formal mentoring program is based on conjecture rather than empirical data. However, some preliminary research evidence indicates that formal mentorships are most effective when mentors and proteges have some input into who will be their mentoring partners, training is provided to the mentoring parties prior to the start of the relationship, and guidelines are provided regarding meeting frequency.

One of the most critical issues for the design of formal mentoring programs is determining what specific mechanism to use for matching mentors and proteges. Research concerning actual practices within industry indicates that a variety of methods are used. In some cases, programs purposefully match partners who are similar to each other, and in other cases, partners who are dissimilar are intentionally matched. Organizations also vary in their philosophies with regard to issues such as matching mentors and proteges from different departments, geographic locations, and functional areas. Although research on this issue is needed, it is probably safe to assert that the purpose of the program should be taken into account when deciding on the matching approach to use. For example, if a program is designed to enhance the understanding of different areas of the business, matching individuals from different functional areas would likely help accomplish such goals.

Interest in formal mentoring has also resulted in research examining differences in outcomes for proteges involved in formal versus informal mentorships. Generally speaking, the research tends to show that formal mentoring relationships are less effective than informal mentorships but better than no mentoring. However, it is important to keep in mind that most formal mentoring programs are not designed with the intention that participants will achieve greater objective career outcomes, such as promotion and salary, over nonparticipants. As noted above, programs may be designed with distinct purposes such as enhancing newcomer socialization or increasing diversity awareness.

Hence, the effectiveness of formal mentoring programs might be better evaluated in terms of how well the program meets its stated objectives rather than how well informally mentored proteges compare with formally mentored proteges. It is also important for formal mentoring participants to recognize that formal mentorships are no substitute for informal mentorships. Finally, research shows that the quality of the relationship matters more than does the manner in which the relationship was initially formed. All formal mentorships are not created equally, and high-quality relationships can emerge from formal programs.

Nontraditional Forms of Mentoring

Although mentorships have been traditionally thought of as dyadic, face-to-face relationships with hierarchical distance between an older mentor and a younger protege, recent research has focused on other mentorship forms. One newer approach beyond the traditional dyadic focus is viewing mentoring relationships in terms of a constellation of different developmental relationships that vary in terms of strength and diversity. The developmental network is made up of concurrent relationships with others that occur at a particular point in time that are important to the career development of the individual. The developers may come from a variety of settings (e.g., employing organization, professional association, religious institution), and each relationship may vary in terms of the strength of the relationship bond. Some research indicates that having multiple mentors can be beneficial beyond the effects of a single traditional or primary mentor.

Related to the developmental network perspec­tive is the recognition that developmental support can be provided by a variety of sources. For example, in some cases, more experienced peers may be able to provide some of the same functions provided by senior members of the organization. Peers may be par­ticularly suitable for providing support that aids in the socialization of newcomers. Moreover, given that individuals are more likely to have multiple jobs or even careers during their lifetimes because of today’s boundaryless-career landscape, there is an increasing likelihood that older individuals may be organizational newcomers. This sets the stage for mentoring relationships to occur between younger mentors and older proteges.

Another nontraditional approach to mentoring is online or electronic-mentoring, or e-mentoring. E-mentoring, also known as virtual mentoring, refers to the use of electronic media, such as e-mail, as the primary means of communication between mentors and proteges. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of online networks designed to facilitate virtual-mentoring relationships. One example is that of MentorNet, a program that pairs professionals working in industry and academia with women studying engineering or science at participating universities and colleges, postdoctoral students, or untenured faculty. There are several potential benefits to e-mentoring. It can help increase the pool of mentors available. This can be particularly helpful in small or rigidly structured organizations that provide limited opportunities for mentoring relationships to develop. Because e-mentoring does not occur in a face-to-face context, it can also reduce the impact of social cues or salient features, such as race and gender, that can play a part in the dynamics of a mentoring relationship. Although there are a number of potential benefits to e-mentoring, research is needed to support the effectiveness of its use.

Dyadic Research

Most mentoring research examines issues from the individual perspective of the mentor or of the protege. An interesting new area of research examines mentor and protege agreement with regard to mentoring provided. Research that has collected data from mentor-protege dyads and obtained reports of mentoring provided from mentoring parties show minimal consistency across reports. That is, correlations between mentor and protege reports of mentoring provided are typically small in magnitude. Similarly, correlations small in magnitude have been observed with regard to mentor and protege reports of relationship quality. This suggests that mentors and proteges typically do not hold shared views of the nature of their relation­ships. This is important in that there appear to be ben­efits to shared perceptions. One study found that both proteges and mentors in mentorships with greater mentor-protege agreement regarding psychosocial mentoring provided reported greater job satisfaction and organizational commitment than did proteges and mentors in mentorships with less agreement. Examining dyadic-level processes within mentoring relationships should be a promising new area for continued research.

See also:


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