How to gain a 20% advantage through mentoring

Want to get more from your people through mentoring? Ben Houghton takes a look. 

Imagine going on a long walk in the countryside on your own. You’ve been out all day trekking in the fresh air, admiring nature in all its beauty. As you near the end of your walk you notice the tiredness creeping into your legs. You reach for your flask and a snack and realise you have none left.

You start to visualise your car in the distance and as you get closer to where you thought you had parked you realise that you still have one final steep hill to walk up. As you stand at the bottom gazing up you try to estimate the distance and how long it might take you. You take a deep breath and begin to climb.

Imagine how challenging these first steps would be. Would it be tough for you, on your own, to gather yourself up for this last push home?

Now imagine how steep the hill would seem if you had a good friend alongside you. And finally, imagine the same walk accompanied by someone you didn’t get on with.

The quality of a companion changes your perception of challenge

Research by social psychologists based in the UK and US have examined this very scenario. 

In their studies investigating the effects of social support on the perception of geographical slant [1], they found that the quality of one’s companion (i.e., the length, closeness and warmth of a relationship) can mediate the effects of how we perceive the gradient of a slope.

Mentoring is about asking the right kinds of questions…the kind that unlock the potential in someone and which summon their own resources to overcome the challenges they face.

Put simply, when you are about to walk up a hill with a friend with whom you have a deep connection, you perceive the gradient to be less steep. Furthermore, if you were to walk up the same hill with someone you disliked, you perceive the gradient to be steeper. The researchers even quantified the difference as a 20% decrease in perception of gradient between the ‘good’ relationship and the ‘bad’ one. 

Think about this for a second: The gradient of hill is fixed, but the perception of how difficult it would be to walk it changed dramatically. 

I find this fascinating, and it informs my perspective on the importance of a supportive mentoring relationship. Whilst in the research the object of the challenge was a hill, leaders face many daunting looking obstacles and an individual’s perception of these challenges are reduced when supported by a close other. 

But what is a mentoring relationship all about? 

Mentoring is about listening and tuning into the other as if you were walking in their boots. Mentoring is about asking the right kinds of questions too, the kind that unlock the potential in someone and which summon their own resources to overcome the challenges they face.

Mentoring is also about bestowing one’s experience in a way that connects with the things that are important to each ‘mentee’, ensuring that they feel met, understood and inspired. 

What we are talking about here is an alliance, a relationship of trust that is geared towards the goals of the mentee. Being able to engender trust then is the sine qua non of a mentor’s skillset. 

Going back to the hill, to trust the person you were walking with was, for me, at the heart of why the gradient reduced. My belief is that any close interpersonal connection is held together by trust; a level of support that is like receiving a ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Will you be there for me when this gets difficult?’

And finally, the capacity to make this commitment is what differentiates a mentor from an everyday managerial interaction. Moreover (and here’s the hidden bit) the willingness to say yes, and actually be there, requires an authenticity that signals the departure of a good leader and the arrival of a great one. 


[1] Journal of Experimental Psychology – Schnall, Harber, Stefanucci & Proffitt.


About the author

Ben Houghton is CEO of Noggin


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