Decades of research show that workplace mentoring can have a profound impact on people’s career growth and advancement. One meta-analysis looked at forty-three studies and found that mentored employees are paid more, get promoted more often, have higher job satisfaction, and feel more committed to their career. Other research points to a link between mentoring and employee engagement, retention, and feelings of inclusion.
We also know that poorly-run mentoring programs can do more harm than good. One study found that bad mentoring experiences can cause negative emotional, psychological, and physical outcomes. In addition, these types of experiences can lead to unfavorable perceptions of the organization and an overall sense of distrust.
There’s really nothing new to be gleaned from any of these findings. But a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research is turning at least some of what we know about mentoring on its head. Let’s take a look.
Study overview and key findings
For the study, the researchers created a four-week mentoring program for new hires in a U.S.-based sales call center. They divided program participants into two groups. In the first group, the sales agents were randomly assigned a mentor. In the second group, agents were given the opportunity to opt into the mentoring program. Among those who opted in, some were given a mentor and some were not. Employees who opted out were not assigned a mentor.
The researchers then looked at how well the agents performed after six months. In the first group, mentored sales agents outperformed non-mentored agents by over 18%, generating $2,400 – $3,100 more in revenue per agent each month. These results provide a strong case for mentorship, something which the researchers also acknowledged.
But the researchers were surprised by what they discovered in the second group. They found that agents who opted into the mentorship program and received a mentor did not have higher revenues than those who opted in but did not receive a mentor. Furthermore, agents that opted in but did not receive a mentor outperformed those who opted out by 30%.
The powerful effects of self-selection bias
Put simply, the sales agents who opted into the mentorship program were already ambitious and skilled, and they benefitted very little from the mentorship. In fact, whether or not they even received a mentor, these employees still outperformed those who had opted out! That’s because those who opted out tended to be less-skilled (as measured by their low hiring scores) — exactly the type of employee who would benefit the most from a mentoring relationship.
In research terms, what we’re talking about here is self-selection bias or a selection effect. What this means is that people who choose to participate in an activity (whether it’s a study, program, etc.) are inherently different, and so they’re not well-representative of the broader population. It’s a well-known factor in research, one that’s difficult to avoid — yet it can have profound effects on the conclusions that are drawn from the findings.
In fact, the researchers emphasized that “This selection effect suggests that a traditional comparison between mentored and non-mentored agents might vastly overstate the effect of mentorship.” They also noted that on-the-job training could be a substitute for ability and could help the agents that struggle the most, “but these agents might be the least likely to seek out the resources for improvement.”
Implications for the broader world of work
First, it’s important to recognize that this study was conducted in a unique work environment, and only among new hires. So our ability to apply these findings more broadly is limited, at least for the time being. However, I think there are some key takeaways here that all businesses could learn from.
Realistically, I don’t think the solution is to discourage ambitious or talented employees from participating in mentoring programs. Rather, organizations should consider targeting their efforts toward lower performers. Not only do these individuals have the most to gain from mentoring, but focusing on their needs is more likely to generate a positive financial return for the business.
I think the study also drives home the importance of being more thoughtful in the planning stages of mentorship programs. In addition to exploring the effects of self-selection, the researchers also looked at characteristics like age, gender, and marital status, as well as whether the mentor was encouraged to focus on teaching skills versus providing emotional support.
These are all factors that an organization could easily build into their mentorship program to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, companies can ensure a better mentor-mentee fit based on the needs and characteristics of both parties. And while a focus on skill-building might make sense when a knowledge transfer is all that’s needed, providing emotional support should be the focus when employee engagement is at stake.
These considerations can also affect whether or not you decide to make program participation mandatory. If the goal of your program is to train new hires or build a specific set of skills among your workforce, then mandatory participation might make the most sense. Making the program mandatory could also help prevent ambitious employees (or those who are naturally social at work) from getting a leg up on their more laid-back or introverted colleagues.
Similarly, you may want to consider making the program mandatory if you think there would be a negative stigma attached to having a mentor. The researchers noted several studies that identified issues with program participation among workers who perceive “asking for help” as a sign of incompetence. I can say that I’ve personally seen this attitude among managers and employees at all levels of the organization — including CEOs!
Applications in the hybrid workplace
I think there are also implications when we consider some of the challenges that are emerging in the hybrid workplace; namely, concerns around the fair treatment of remote versus office workers. We’re already seeing that some employees, mostly younger workers who are early in their career, may choose to go into the office so they get more facetime with managers. I have no doubt that these workers would also be more likely to opt into a mentorship program, giving them an unfair advantage over their remote counterparts.
In addition, it’s important to recognize that remote workers could have concerns that would make them reluctant to participate in a mentorship program. For one, they may question the effectiveness of virtual mentoring. Or they might fear that they’ll be forced to meet with their mentor in-person even if it’s inconvenient for them due to family or personal reasons.
With these concerns in mind — and assuming you don’t make mentoring mandatory — here’s what I’d recommend if your company is adopting a hybrid model. First, keep a close eye on program participation among your remote versus office workers. Second, take steps to ensure that your program can be successfully run no matter where people are located. Lastly, communicate with your staff about the benefits of having a mentor (whether virtually or in-person), and ask managers to encourage all workers to participate — not just the ones who are first in line.
A newly-discovered growth opportunity
It certainly won’t make sense for every organization to have a mandatory mentorship program, or at least not for their entire workforce. However, this study has raised an interesting point about the significant effect that self-selection bias can have on mentoring outcomes. So as you reevaluate your existing program or update it for the hybrid workplace, consider how you can drive greater program participation among those who are struggling. Doing so presents a great opportunity not just for your business, but for workers who just need a little extra support to help get them on the right track.
I'd love to know what you think about these research findings — let me know in the comments on LinkedIn!