Have you ever thought of approaching a senior in your organization or in your network for guidance but something about them held you back?
Or if you are a senior and someone approached you for mentoring, you refused because you were ticked off by the way they made the request?
If you recognize the value of having a mentor but do not know how to find one- you might benefit from a more structured approach to a mentorship program!
Mentors carry wealth of knowledge, skills and insights within an organization that could be shared amongst other individuals for their professional growth and advancement. A successful, sustainable mentoring program adds value for everyone involved. Although such relationships exist informally, a more structured approach helps organizations to maximize these benefits.
Sometimes these situations are rife with implicit assumptions and biases inherent in our thinking pattern. Mentoring programs with the best of intentions are known to be ineffective because of such unconscious biases.
This begins with the selection process of mentors and mentees. Mentors tend to exercise similar-to-me bias and select mentees who are likely to follow a similar path and use similar techniques to develop in their careers. For example, a male Business Unit head from IIT might select a male junior engineer from IIT as a mentee to help him follow in his own footsteps.
It may be helpful for a neutral team, such as HR, to match mentors and mentees using specific criteria. Oxford Learning Institute has found that “compatible personality plays a large part in a successful mentoring relationship and can’t be assessed on paper”¹. If the HR team knows the mentors and mentees well enough they will be able to make such matches reasonably well.
Another approach highlighted, is matching mentee ambitions with mentor career trajectories. Since the number of women decline rapidly at higher levels, it is likely that there are more male mentors available than women. To address this, organizations could encourage women to take up mentoring not only to impart career advice to others, develop as good coaches and strengthen their own careers. After selection, mentors may believe that strategies that worked for their own career development will also work for their mentee². Therefore, mentors need to be trained in effective coaching. As mentors, they should make time to listen to the mentee’s needs and advise them based on the mentee’s current scenario, in today’s work context, rather than blindly advise them based on personal experience which may no longer be relevant.
A different perspective to look at how such biases become a hurdle is that certain biases can influence who one forms close bonds with based on “similarity” and/or “affinity bias”. This can sometimes deter access to good mentorship for minority groups or those who are underrepresented in the organization.
Strategies to prevent biases
Humans have a high instinctual ability to spot any differences in the situation and choose the flight or fright response after deciding if they are in danger or not. However, this fast processing of environmental cues also colours judgement and leads to biases.
Some of the common biases and ways to rectify them are discussed below:
- Key responsibility for any mentor is to support the mentee in navigating challenges or opportunities in the organization in the present context. For this, a mentor should be able to empathize and understand the current context and be cognizant of the differences between what used to happen in the past and how it has changed over the course of time.
- A rather common bias each one of us have is to get along with people who seem “almost like us”- It could be harmful in a mentoring relationship. One should avoid the tendency to choose mentee who are like them because such bonds are filled with implicit assumptions which might not be the best for mentee’s learning and growth.
- There is a downside of being “too much” aware of the biases, sometimes it leads to making people too conscious which eventually interferes with their behavior. For instance a mentor may develop a fear to criticize a minority mentee. Now, this will make mentorship programs ineffective as without critical feedback the mentee may miss upon important learning or even lose advancement opportunities. Mentors should exercise the ability to filter biases in real time while they communicate with the mentees- take a mental pause and reflect!
- Creating awareness that such biases exist also involves leaning inwards rather than calling out people and creating a culture of shame. Instead, mentors should acknowledge that everyone has some inherent biases and just work consciously to prevent them from influencing their actions to create a supportive environment.
The path to a more equitable mentorship perhaps needs other systems to be established by organizations besides addressing such biases. For instance, mentorship programs can have provisions where people from diverse backgrounds can form bonds more naturally with others. Further, companies should provide mentors with full support including training the mentors and ensuring that there is a standard process for feedback and creating accountability for employees’ growth. There could be many other such variations to these programs- all and all, We can safely assume that companies will require a diversity of approaches to decide a best fit for their cultural ecosystem.
*Read our Inclusion Handbook 2019 for more information on how to conduct bias free mentoring programs.
About the Author and Serein
Nikita Agnihotri is Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with two Masters’ degrees specializing in Psychology from India and New York. She is a researcher with almost 3 and half years of experience in both academic and applied research settings. Reading about why some people feel they are not valued, or that they do not belong in their own organization, paved her way in the field of diversity and inclusion. She successfully defended her thesis on how organization-based self-esteem impacts voice behavior amongst employees at corporate workplaces. She has been involved in a variety of projects in applied psychometry area, from conducting criterion validation analyses for competency scales, using classical test theory for item analyses to developing items, writing white papers, creating marketing factsheets and assessing psychometric properties of a diagnostic tool for inclusion at workplaces. Working as a Research Fellow at Catalyst Inc., New York, she contributed in the development of an online inclusion survey for corporates. She is a self-aware individual who has the potential to adapt to change, embrace it and work effectively in a team with culturally distinct individuals. She is passionate about applying her knowledge in improving selection systems by broadening the criteria used for selection decisions and following an evidence-based approach.
At Serein we believe that diversity and inclusion are the pillars of a good society. Issues of inclusion, diversity, unconscious bias and mental health can affect home and the workplace in many ways.
Having worked on gender and with many other forms of diversity we have come to realise that an empathetic approach to all builds inclusion. It also builds a trusting environment in society as well as the workplace. If you would like to learn more about diversity and inclusion, inclusive leadership or how to speak about empathy, emotional/mental health issues or conduct gender, diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias, mental wellbeing trainings in the workplace, do drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org