Building high-quality mentoring relationships at work through personal identification


by Beth Humberd and Bess Rouse

Mentoring is considered essential to career development.  Yet, study after study shows that not all mentoring relationships are effective: often the protégé does not reap the intended benefits of such relationships; and in many cases, mentors do not feel invested in or connected to the relationship.

On the other hand, there are certainly instances where high-quality mentoring relationships arise; in these relationships, both the protégé and the mentor experience growth and development in personal, professional, and career domains. What, then, can account for these variations in the quality of a mentoring relationship over time?

In our recently published conceptual paper, we theorize how personal identification – the process by which individuals realize cognitive overlap between the self and other over time in a relationship –may be key to fostering higher quality mentoring relationships.

“I identify with John”: A theory of personal identification in mentoring

A wealth of research tells us that the stronger an individual identifies, the more she will be invested in and committed to her work role and/or organization. This research primarily focuses on how people identify with one’s role or profession (e.g., “I identify as an accountant) or with her organization (e.g., “I identify as a member of this firm”). Surprisingly little research explores how people identify with another person (e.g., I identify with John) in the context of their work relationships. In mentoring specifically, this type of identification is critical to understanding how high quality relationships develop.

We build from psychoanalytic theories and research on romantic relationships to consider the ways in which individuals can identify with a specific other person– a process that we refer to as personal identification. This form of identifying, we suggest, can be a powerful force for driving individuals closer together in the context of workplace mentoring relationships.

Seeing you in me: How does identification occur in mentoring?

Read any personal story of career success, across a variety of industries and occupations, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one that didn’t mention the important role played by a mentor.  Individuals often discuss being motivated by seeing a “future version of myself” in a mentor.  Similarly, mentors often reflect on how they supported a particular protégé because they “saw a former version of myself in him/her.”  These are the very dynamics that form the basis for our theory of personal identification in mentoring.

We suggest that early in the relationship, protégés likely draw on their future selves – who they wish to become in the future – as a means of identifying with their mentors.  Alternatively, mentors likely draw on their past selves – an image of who they were in the past – as a means of identifying with their protégés.  Over time, as the relationship develops, it is possible that both the mentor and protégé also draw on images of their present selves – who they are now – as a means of identifying with the other.

From these sources, then, how do mentors and protégés identify with one another? We suggest that personal identification in mentoring happens through three primary mechanisms.

In the early stages of the relationship, identification can happen through projection – individuals ascribe aspects of the self onto the other.  For example, a mentor might recall herself as an anxious junior employee and project this image of her past self onto a protégé (regardless of whether the junior employee is actually anxious).  Here, identification is based more on fantasy of the other, than actual realistic knowledge about the other individual in the relationship.

As the relationship deepens and both individuals have a more realistic sense of the other, they may begin to identify based on recognition – as interactions between the mentor and protégé increase, they recognize shared similarities.  For example, a protégé may recognize that a mentor has similar desires for a balance between work and family.

Ultimately, this may lead to identification based on integration – in which individuals in the relationship incorporate aspects of the other into their own self.  Here, the individual moves beyond recognitions of similarity and actually changes his own self view to become more similar to the other.  For example, through integration, a protégé might begin to view herself as a change agent in the organization, like her mentor, and in doing so, identifies with the mentor.

Toward high quality mentoring relationships: 3 key insights from our theory

Insight #1: Projection early

In early stages of a mentoring relationship, identifying through projection can be important in drawing the mentor and protégé together. In order to reach a high-quality mentoring relationship, though, the pair needs to shift to identifying through recognition and integration to allow for more authentic relating to one another.

Insight #2: Present selves enable high-quality

To enable a high-quality relationship, mentors and protégés need to start identifying based on present selves, not just past and future selves. Identifying based on present selves allows the pair to learn and grow together, fostering an experience of mutuality, rather than just focusing on their differences in experience and career stage.

Insight #3: Relational behaviors and identifying based on present selves helps relationship change

Mentoring relationships end for a variety of reasons and these endings can lead to feelings of resentment. The mutuality and empathy that comes from identifying based on present selves eases a transition out of the mentoring relationship and sets the stage for a peer relationship. Having already established shared influence, mutual respect, trust, among other relational behaviors, the mentor and protégé can better understand why the relationship needs to shift forms.

Personal identification can set mentoring on a high-quality path that not only leads to a better mentoring relationship, but allows that relationship to continue in a new form once mentoring is not the focal point.

Now what?

For scholars and researchers, our theory underscores the importance of assessing changes in quality over time in a mentoring relationship and attending to the central role that personal identification can play in those changes.

Although our work focuses on identification in informal mentoring relationships, our theorizing offers some insights that could help build more effective formal mentoring programs.  In particular, formal relationships tend to be of shorter duration, yet much of our theorizing is built on the fact that as individuals spend more time together, they get to know each other more, and thus, have more information available with which to identify.  Thus, formal relationships may need to be given more time to develop organically, in order to create the space for potential identification to emerge.

Overall, without understanding the complexity of identification in mentoring, we fail to understand a key interpersonal force that draws mentors and protégés together and allows their relationship to function effectively over time.

Beth Humberd is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Manning School of Business at UMass-Lowell. Elizabeth (Bess) Rouse is an Assistant Professor of Management in the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

This article summarizes a conceptual paper entitled “Seeing you in me and me in you: Personal identification in the phases of mentoring relationships” in Academy of Management Review.

Image: Perhelion (via Wikimedia Commons).


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