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Want To Impress Your Mentor? Show Your Soft Side

Qualities such as empathy may sound, to ambitious minds, a little flimsy, but mastering soft skills can often mean the difference between career progression and stagnation
Qualities such as empathy may sound, to ambitious minds, a little flimsy, but mastering soft skills can often mean the difference between career progression and stagnation

It’s not just what you do but how you do it. A lack of empathy in high performers can result in them receiving less mentoring from their seniors and ostracisation from their peers, new research from Durham University Business School and others reveals.

Supervisory Career Mentoring (SCM), if done effectively, gives the mentee the skills and knowledge to progress in their career, secure a loyal support base for the mentor, and increases the likelihood of the organisation holding onto its promising lower-level employees, whose subsequent progression through the ranks provides an abundance of internally-sourced skilled workers.

Naturally, it makes sense for employers to use every means possible try and retain as many of their high performers as possible. So it has been a conundrum as to why many supervisors are reluctant to take their more dexterous fledglings under their wing.

According to Xiaotong (Janey) Zheng, Assistant Professor of Leadership at Durham University Business School, and her colleagues in Tongji University, Nanjing University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a senior worker’s decision to become a mentor hangs not only upon their potential mentee’s ability to complete tasks well and progress, but also upon their ability to understand their mentors’ perspectives and empathise with them.

For the truth is that few among us want to help train the Frankenstein’s monster that may, one day, seize our seat in the boardroom, chewing up our careers in the process. High performers, Zheng notes, pose “a perceived status threat” to their seniors who worry about their own position within the organisation becoming destabilised.

The solution, Zheng explains, is to find a way both parties can operate in tandem for maximum benefit to themselves and the organisation, rather than making it a competition.

So how can you, as a young hot-shot acing it in the lower ranks of your company, attract a mentor? Whilst confidence in your own potential is a key skill in career development, Zheng says that wannabe mentees must make it plain that they are not looking to supplant their teacher but wish to engage in a mutually beneficial partnership. qualities such as empathy, the ability to see the world from another’s vantage point, or imagine oneself in another’s shoes may sound, to ambitious minds, a little flimsy as a skillset, but mastering these abilities can often mean the difference between career progression and stagnation.

Zheng refers to this as “relational competence”. To properly understand what this means, imagine a scenario in which a colleague approaches you and says; “You’ve been getting some great results lately. You must be working very hard.”

For the sake of the example, imagine you respond, “No, you’re just lazy!” With this comment, you display a lack of relational competence because your rude and abrasive manner fails to understand that your colleague may likely feel they’re under intense pressure to up their own performance. Not only does such rudeness mean you’re unlikely to be included in that year’s secret Santa, it also means that other people will be less likely to show investment in your career and do you any favours.

This is where social exchange theory comes into play, a theory which largely underpins Zheng’s research. As she explains it, “Individuals are more likely to enter a relationship in which they get favourable returns from their investments of time and effort.”

Therefore, if a boss showers pearls of wisdom on an ungrateful, unempathetic protégé who uses it as an opportunity to progress without giving anything back, it is a poor return on investment. Most supervisors know better than to make this sort of mistake and will, in future, devote their attention elsewhere.

The data from Zheng and her fellow scholars’ research backs up this idea. As part of the methodology used, the research team surveyed 192 full-time employees in China, aged from 18 to 60. Each participant was given a description of a hypothetical workmate called “Yang” and was asked to rate how likely they were to devote time to helping Yang in their career. The results showed that a Yang who was described as a high performer but lacking in empathy was significantly less likely to have time or energy invested in them, than a Yang who was both efficient at completing tasks and emotionally perceptive.

Of course, the Yangs that fulfilled neither requirement were considered about as useful to the organisation as a burnt parsnip, but that should come as a surprise to nobody.

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