Tapping the Power of the Peer

In praise of an underused form of mentorship—one that research shows actually works
By: 
Alan Morantz
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Management thinkers are not used to looking to the education or health-care systems for inspiration to improve organizations. If they did, they might appreciate a simple yet effective tool: peer mentorship. 

Peer mentorship is what’s left when traditional mentorship is shorn of power dynamics. It’s a one-on-one relationship between people of similar tenure, status or age. The more experienced person acts as an adviser for the less experienced peer. Imagine an upper-year Indigenous student role model, a rehab accountability partner or an onboarding buddy at work. Traditional mentorship, on the other hand, tends to pair an older, senior executive with a younger, junior manager.

Research shows that peer mentorship is good for both mentors and mentees in nursinggraduate studiessubstance abuse treatment and other education and health-care settings. Mentees receive help in self-directed learning as well as emotional and socialization support. Mentors develop leadership and relationship-building skills. 

Peer mentorship is seen as a less intimidating form of mentorship, given that the mentor and mentee are on more equal footing. “It’s a viable alternative to traditional mentorship as participants can build stronger relationships based on similar and recent experiences,” says Matthew Aslett, who studied mentorship as part of his graduate work at Smith School of Business. “The reduced power imbalance promotes open communication and ideation with less fear of judgement.”  

Studying soccer referees

Aslett conducted a study of peer mentorship with the Oakville Soccer Club in Oakville, Ont., assisted by fellow soccer devotee and Smith School of Business professor Matthias Spitzmuller. The club runs an annual mentorship program as part of its referee development. Aslett saw the program as a great opportunity to compare the different forms of mentorship in an actual setting. Participating mentees—74 accredited soccer match officials—were randomly assigned a peer or traditional mentor. The mentees and mentors completed surveys after each of three games.

By the end of the study, peer mentorship had outperformed traditional mentorship. Participants who had peer mentors perceived more social support and were less likely to consider quitting than those with experienced mentors. They scored higher on their performance as referees, as well as on “voice behaviours”: Those in a peer relationship more readily spoke up, made recommendations and stayed involved.

Aslett says the study offers a lesson for businesses. “Ultimately, the most compelling reason to adopt peer mentorship is that it can result in improved outcomes in contrast to traditional mentorship,” he says. 

Five reasons to get started

The message here isn’t that mentoring is best delivered by peers rather than more experienced or senior individuals. Traditional mentoring will always have a place in the workplace. It’s a rich development opportunity that, for some, can mean access to influential social networks, positive role models and the support of a well-placed champion. It can be particularly valuable for employees who are at a disadvantage. A woman early in her career, for example, can gain valuable insights on how to find her voice in a largely male environment and how to navigate through, or around, inevitable organizational barriers.

But peers need to be seen as equally worthy mentors in the workplace. Indeed, training more employees to be peer mentors could offer a host of benefits. One is simply opening the mentor experience to more employees. After all, not all senior managers have the time and interest to be traditional mentors. Senior managers are also expensive organizational resources in short supply. 

Two, arguably peer mentorship improves the transfer of tacit knowledge, the information that is easily taken for granted yet difficult to acquire. A mentee can relate better to a peer than to a late-career mentor. And the feedback can be more meaningful to their experience in the organization.

Three, peer mentorship can be tied to an organizational talent management strategy, such as improved employee onboarding, higher employee engagement scores or better retention of key workforce groups. In all these examples, the effectiveness of the peer mentorship program can be easily measured and assessed against goals.

Four, peer mentors themselves benefit. Research shows they develop leadership skills and are recognized for their contributions.

And five, peer mentoring may carry fewer of the risks associated with the traditional form based on a power differential. Unfortunately, dysfunctional mentoring relationships are hardly unknown and, in those situations, a protégé can end up with lower self-esteem and job satisfaction. This is not unusual: in one study, half of the respondents reported having been involved in a negative mentoring relationship during their career.

Under the radar

None of this, of course, is new. Peer mentorship is not exactly a cutting-edge management idea like, say, holocracy. And some organizations already use peer mentorship, albeit haphazardly, to help new employees get used to corporate culture. But there is a sense that it’s an opportunity wasted. 

Perhaps peer mentorship will gain a following as organizations continue to downsize, as hierarchies get squished, and as the desire to boost employee engagement grows more urgent. We may be seeing signs in this direction with recent calls to incorporate peer reviews into the much-maligned performance evaluation process.

It’s important to keep in mind that social influences at work have an outsized impact on our attitudes toward our employer and job. We are hardwired to fit in and tend to work harder when others are around. Social influences can even shape our future career intentions. One study showed how employees were more likely to become entrepreneurs if their co-workers had prior self-employment experience. Peer mentorship is about intentionally harnessing these social influences to shape more confident employees and more agile organizations.

Smith School of Business

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Kingston, Ontario
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