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How to make sure mentoring works

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Mentoring is a time-honored approach to help people in their careers, but research1 from Harvard Business School argues that it often fails to hit the mark.

The study found that new hires who received effective mentoring were able to outperform their non-mentored peers by 18%.  What’s more, the mentored employees also stayed with the organization longer than their non-mentored peers.  The problem is that when such schemes are voluntary, the people who could benefit the most from it are often the least likely to accept it.

“Peer-to-peer mentoring networks can have pretty profound implications,” the researchers say. “But just setting up a mentoring program that assumes people will come is the wrong way to go. We found that people who need mentoring the most tend to opt out if given the chance. You have to make the program apply to everyone, not just those who volunteer.”

Making mentoring work

The value of mentoring is reasonably well established, with the majority of large companies offering it to new hires.  The effectiveness of these programs is often unknown, however, so the researchers worked with a call center firm to understand how mentoring works.

The company introduced some changes to their mentoring programs, with the researchers testing two versions of the program.  The first of these saw some employees randomly provided with mentoring and some not, while a second version saw all employees given the option for mentoring that they could then opt-in or out of.  Within this version, those who opted-in were randomly assigned to either a mentoring group or a non-mentoring group.

The mentoring sessions consisted of a series of brief meetings between the new hires and an experienced colleague over a four-week period, with the aim being to discuss specific work-related questions that the new hires had.

A mentoring boost

The results show that those who received formal mentoring went on to produce 18% more revenue in their first two months than those who didn’t receive any mentoring.  What’s more, around 90% of this increase was sustained across the first six months in the job.

Mentoring also boosted employee engagement, with those who received it 11% more likely to stay at the firm after their first month.  What is perhaps important, however, is that no such benefits emerged for those in the selective mentoring group who opted into the program.

The researchers believe that certain unobservable characteristics often underpin (or undermine) our willingness to engage with mentors or not.  These could include shyness and embarrassment, but also an overconfidence in our own ability.

“Some people just won’t admit they need help,” the researchers say. “There’s something like an intimidation factor at work. No matter what the cause, those who need help most are not seeking help.”

As such, the best approach for organizations is probably to provide mentoring that is compulsory with no opt-out option rather than giving employees the ability to opt-in or out.

Article source: How To Make Sure Mentoring Works.

Header image source: iStock.


  1. Sandvik, J., Saouma, R., Seegert, N., & Stanton, C. T. (2021). Treatment and Selection Effects of Formal Workplace Mentorship Programs (No. w29148). National Bureau of Economic Research.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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