Rethinking Mentorship

Your Most Effective Mentor May Be the Least Like You (From the Outside)

Take a second to think about an effective mentoring relationship. This can be something you have seen in a movie, or one you have taken part in yourself. Perhaps it was a formal mentoring program through school or work, or even an informal relationship with a coworker. What pops into your head when you think of mentor and protégé similarity? For many, it is age, race, or gender. Surely, these characteristics are responsible for objective similarity, and influence perceived similarity, right? Actually, research has proven that these characteristics are not key predictors of perceived similarity between mentor and protégé.

A recent study took a novel approach in exploring what causes perceived similarity in mentoring relationships (Mitchell, Eby, & Ragins, 2015). Instead of race or gender or even education level, they proposed that the two dimensions that predict perceived similarity between a mentor and protégé are attachment orientation and relational self-construal. Attachment orientation is how one views attachment to other people (Bowlby, 1973). This model of how relationships should work is formed in infancy, and the pattern is lifelong. People fall into the category of securely attached, or insecurely attached. Securely attached people expect a close relationship with others, and deem themselves worthy of such attention. Insecurely attached people, such as attachment avoidant, approach relationships without interest, preferring instead to pour themselves into individual work.

Intuitively, we can predict that securely attached individuals will have a healthier relationship with their mentors, and will perceive higher similarity and closeness. Relational self-construal refers to the tendency to define yourself by who you are close with (Mitchell et al., 2015). Because self is tied so closely with others, perceived similarity between someone with high relational self-construal and their mentor is hypothesized to be high.

Both how you relate to people, and how much you view yourself through your relationships, were significantly associated with perceived similarity between mentor and protégé. As expected, protégés who had high levels of relational self-construal perceived themselves to be similar to their mentors. Somewhat surprisingly, the mentor-protégé pairs exhibiting similar but extreme attachment orientations viewed each other more similarly than those who reported average attachment orientation.

Ok, so what stands between your feelings of similarity and, you know, actual behavior at work? Role modeling! Role modeling is the practice of recognizing elements of an idealized self in a mentor (Kram, 1985). It is possible to bolster role modeling and perceived similarity in order to encourage the positive outcomes of mentoring such as organizational commitment and career satisfaction (Mitchell at al., 2015). An informal approach is to talk to your mentor/protégé about topics that are not strictly work related. Sharing personal opinions and feelings increases closeness and can boost perceived similarity. In a more formal setting, you and your mentor/protégé may want to explore something like a personality test individually, and share your results. Not only will you learn more about yourself, you can learn more about each other in the process. When you enter a mentorship program, remember to be open minded and try to connect on a level that encompasses more than just work.


Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Separation anxiety and anger (Vol 2). New York: Basic Books.

Kram, K.E. (1985). Mentoring at work. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Mitchell, M.E., Eby, L.T., & Ragins, B.R. (2015). My mentor, my self: Antecedents and outcomes of perceived similarity in mentoring relationships. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 89, 1-9.

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