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Research: Mentoring works … if you can handle the truth

For some, the question isn’t really whether leaders are born or made, it’s finding the best way to make them. Now, a first-of-its-kind study suggests an answer.

In a field experiment, researchers found that pairing a seasoned pro with a promising prospect in an informal mentorship was significantly more potent in developing strong leaders than formal group training. The process, however, was effective only if proteges fully trusted their mentor and were willing to handle blunt criticism, not just empty praise.

“Organizations in the U.S. spend billions each year trying to develop better leaders with mixed results. This study is important because it explains why so many programs may be falling short of expectations,” said Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-author of the study.

The research was conducted over six months and involved hundreds of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The field experiment randomly assigned cadets to either a tailored, structured mentorship program or a comparison group that would participate in group leadership training in a classroom setting. Results showed that cadets participating in the semi-formal mentorships were significantly more likely to increase their confidence for being in a leadership role than their counterparts.

Why? Mentors may have been important in helping proteges make meaning out of their experiences in a focused, one-on-one manner as compared to a less-personalized group setting. Mentors also provided important psychosocial support and served to validate their proteges’ claims of leadership.

For the process to work, however, proteges needed to be open and willing to discuss and explore their leadership with their mentor. That required a high level of trust, Harms said. Additionally, proteges who were oriented to handle tough and negative feedback also got more from the mentorships than those who preferred to be only complimented on their performance. For the latter group, mentoring was relatively ineffective.

“West Point cadets are taught the value of doing what is right, even if it is hard for them,” Harms said. “There’s a reason for this. Individuals who embraced this principle showed that they are the ones who deserve to be leaders of the future. And when the time comes, they will be ready.”

The research has important implications for business, Harms said. Organizations may want to consider approaching leadership development in new, more systematic ways by using mentors. Prior research has also demonstrated that mentoring relationships have positive benefits for mentors as well as their proteges.

“Organizations have to decide for themselves how important leadership development is for them. It is possible, but it is also hard. But as this study showed, for both organizations and for individuals, self-improvement sometimes means doing something that is hard for you,” he said.

The study was authored by Paul Lester of the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Directorate; Sean Hannah of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; UNL’s Harms; Gretchen Vogelgesang of Federal Management Partners and Bruce Avolio of the University of Washington.

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