The Psychology Behind Effective Workplace Mentoring Programs

Mentoring Programs
Published on
November 4, 2021

If you want to get better at something, you need to understand it more thoroughly. This is true of virtually any endeavor — from the mechanics of a baseball swing to the mathematics behind a beautifully composed piece of music. A whole new layer of complexity is added when making other people better at something. 

Teacher and student. Coach and player. Parent and Child. All of these relationships involve a blend of development, learning, and growth that is crucial to success in both personal and professional domains. We've all seen how impactful a good teacher can be when it comes to a student's future success. The deficits of bad parenting are equally obvious. But the exact reason why these experiences are so impactful is shrouded in psychological complexity. 

This complexity is what creates both the challenge and great satisfaction of successful mentorship. 

How Mentoring Works: The Psychological Perspective

The field of psychology has proven to be so important to the success of modern-day businesses that it's garnered its field: Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior (OB). 

Created over 100 years ago, experts in this space now dissect the various processes, interactions, and behaviors that make up workplace behavior, helping unearth the mechanisms behind important outcomes like employee engagement, firm performance, and burnout. Naturally, the researchers in a field dedicated to understanding human behavior in the workplace are bound to turn their attention towards that most dynamic of professional experiences: workplace mentorship. 

Below is a list of prominent psychological theories that underpin a workplace mentoring program's success (and failure). 

Attachment Theory 

Attachment Theory is most often used to explain close relationships like romantic involvement or trusted friendships in adults. It states that behavior within these relationships is based on the two systems: care-seeking and caregiving. The former refers to a person who is looking for comfort and safety during stressful circumstances, while the latter performs the “safe haven function” by supporting their partner.

In healthy relationships, the care-seeker feels a secure level of attachment and is able to push their own boundaries, falling back on their caregiver when needed. In unhealthy relationships, the care-seeker will exhibit anxious or avoidant behavior towards their partner.  

OB researchers believe that secure adult attachment is a crucial predictor of both mentoring participation and the success of a mentoring relationship. This is supported by other research that finds that more confident and extroverted employees are likely to pursue mentoring relationships without organizational direction.  

Interdependence Theory 

According to updated versions of this theory, interpersonal social behavior is the result of individual factors and the environment. The outcome of these interactions is interdependent on how the individual’s are affected by the actions of the other. The individual and environmental factors develop into a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story, where each decision is confined based on the context at hand. 

In terms of mentoring, interdependence theory is helpful for determining ideal mentor-mentee matches. Both individuals gain valuable experience throughout the process, so there's a degree of symmetry in terms of gain, but the specific goals, motives, and behaviors of both parties need to align for each to achieve their ideal outcome.

Self-Expansion Theory 

In some mentoring environments, mentees are very eager to build their skills and knowledge. They actively seek out their mentor in a direct, motivated manner. These individuals are perfectly aligned with the Self-Expansion Theory, which states that people naturally work to achieve goals and improve themselves. 

Productive relationships are one of the most common ways people achieve self-expansion, and mentorship leads the way in this regard. Mentors have the lived experience, knowledge, and wisdom necessary to guide mentees through important growth periods. Likewise, the act of mentoring is a form of self-expansion in itself for mentors as they sharpen their own interpersonal and professional skill sets.

The Rhodes Model 

Formal youth mentoring is the basis of The Rhodes Model. Productive relationships between non-parents and adolescents are very important for the development of at-risk youth. Social, cognitive, and emotional development are the core goals of this programming, and mentors help improve these components through trust, mutual respect, and empathy-driven interactions. The application of this model to the professional world is being evaluated by experts, particularly in workplace mentoring programs. 

Not only do workplace mentors help junior employees and less-experienced peers gain more task-oriented skills, but it also helps them develop as an individual. Positive self-image, a more engaging mindset, and clear communication are just a few of the key improvements that mentees gain from a positive mentoring experience. By applying the tenets of the Rhodes Model to workplace development programs, enterprise stakeholders can optimize the performance and wellbeing of their staff.

The Working Alliance 

The Working Alliance theory is the perfect choice if mentors and mentees want a perfect conceptual framework for approaching the mentoring process. Across many different therapeutic approaches to psychological care, a strong relational dynamic between clinician and patient is necessary for any positive change to occur. This is known as the Working Alliance. 

In mentorship, both parties are very much entering into a similar domain of connection. But, instead of purely addressing psychological issues, mentor and mentee embark on a process of development and self-improvement. They work together to form a rapport that produces a positive impact for all. 

Understanding the concepts behind relationship dynamics, whether it's from an Interdependence, Self-Expansion, or Working Alliance lens, is a great way to better understand the dynamics between mentor and mentee. They also shed more insight into how mentorship is a great way for enterprises to improve their talent pipeline as a consistent workplace practice. It also directly contributes to employee retention, employee empowerment, and an improved workplace culture.

To find out how MentorCloud is improving the Working Alliance of junior and senior employees across the enterprise spectrum, reach out to us today!


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