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Understanding what drives leaders to offer mentorship can help firms make the most of promising employees.

The problem

Studies time and again have shown that leader-provided mentorship is a winning proposition for companies. Mentorship can entail work-related support, which might involve providing opportunities for career growth, or psychosocial support, as in sharing personal experiences and conveying empathy. Yet despite its acknowledged importance, “the reasons why leaders decide to engage in mentorship are not clear,” says Laurent Lapierre, Telfer Research Fellow and an associate professor of organizational behaviour.

The study

In a new study, Laurent Lapierre, Silvia Bonaccio of the Telfer School, and Loren Naidoo of Baruch College hypothesized that leaders with a more relational identity might be more disposed to mentor subordinates. People who have a more relational identity or “self-concept” are more focused on developing and maintaining one-on-one connections with significant others. These leaders also base much of their self-worth on whether they believe these significant others appreciate them.

The study factored in social exchange theory, which is used to explain why individuals would be motivated to provide mentorship. It posits that when an individual “perceives that a relationship will provide greater rewards than costs, she will be more motivated to develop the relationship,” explains Bonaccio, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources.

One factor that should convince a leader that providing mentorship to a follower would be more beneficial than costly is whether that follower has shown strong job performance. In a 2009 study, Lapierre, Bonaccio, and Tammy Allen of the University of South Florida found that leaders are more willing to mentor a follower who has displayed strong rather than weaker job performance.

Building on this earlier work, the researchers used a sample of 137 leader-follower pairs to investigate how leaders’ relational self-concept relates to the mentoring they provide, and whether the mentee’s job performance influences this relationship. As expected, leaders with a stronger relational self-concept provided more career support to followers who displayed higher (vs. lower) job performance. But leaders’ relational self-concept was unrelated to their provision of psychosocial support, irrespective of followers’ job performance.

The implications

The pattern of results intrigues Lapierre, who is an expert on leader-follower work relationships. It suggests that leaders with a more relational self-concept “may consider the provision of career support as more beneficial – to their relationship and thus to their self-worth – and less costly when a follower displays stronger rather than weaker job performance.”

Lapierre adds: “It would be valuable for future research to examine factors that leaders with a more relational identity – or leaders in general, for that matter – consider when deciding whether to offer psychosocial support.” Reciprocity may play a role here; in other words, whether the follower offered the leader psychosocial support in the past and may therefore do so again if the leader offers this type of support.

What’s next?

The study highlights the need for further research on the interplay between leaders’ identities, follower behaviour and how leaders enact their role, but it also points to some interesting practical implications.

For example, “organizations could consider the strength of individuals’ relational self-concept when trying to predict their propensity to mentor employees. They could use this information for making leadership selection or promotion decisions,” says Silvia Bonaccio.

It would be valuable to have more leaders mentor promising employees in regards to career growth, but providing such support is often at the leader’s discretion. Organizations could cultivate mentorship by using a relational self-concept measure as one among several reliable and valid tools for staffing leadership positions.

“Among the measures that organizations can take,” Lapierre concludes, “are to ensure that leaders with strongly relational self-concepts are paired with more high-performance followers.”

The paper was published in The Leadership Quarterly.


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