Mentoring: Does it really help develop careers?
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Mentoring: Does it really help develop careers?

Lots of learning gurus recommend mentoring as a driver of employee development and advancement. But does it really work?

Academic research says yes — with a caveat.

One landmark study, by scholars at the universities of Georgia and South Florida, stands out. The researchers compiled the results of 43 studies of workplace mentoring and put them through advanced statistical analysis. They wanted to see whether mentored employees enjoyed greater career success than non-mentored ones.

The study found that mentored employees did report a clear advantage over non-mentored employees in both objective career success — as measured by raises and promotions — and in subjective success, measured by job and career satisfaction.

The researchers said that mentees especially valued such benefits of mentoring as “the provision of networking opportunities outside the organization, intellectually challenging assignments that lead to breadth of skill development rather than increased specialization, help in developing lateral and cross-functional relationships in addition to hierarchical relationships, and the provision of personalized feedback and career strategy.”

Objective vs. subjective effects

All of that is great, and supports the idea that employee training and development programs should include mentoring.

But as we noted, there was a caveat. The researchers said the measurable effects of mentoring on these objective career outcomes was relatively small, although positive. What was bigger, they said, was the effect of mentoring on subjective career outcomes — those perceived by the employees rather than measured by hard numbers.

For one thing, mentoring had a significant positive effect on people’s satisfaction with the job they currently held. For another, it also had a strong effect on overall career satisfaction, career commitment, and expectations for advancement. Here’s how the researchers put it: “These results suggest that the most consistent benefits of mentoring may be the impact on affective reactions to the workplace and positive psychological feelings regarding one’s career.”

In other words, while mentoring does directly provide employees with skills and connections that can help with advancement, it does even more for their attitudes — which, all things being equal, indirectly gives them a better chance of earning advancement.

A sense of identity and competence

The researchers concluded that sponsors of mentoring programs may want to think twice about pitching these programs to employees as a way of directly advancing their careers. Perhaps the best way to sell these programs to employees, they suggested, is rather to emphasize the ways they help enhance mentees’ “sense of professional identity and self-competence.”

This blog entry is based on the following scholarly article: Allen, T., et al. (2004) Career Benefits Associated With Mentoring for Proteges: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(1), 127-1367.

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