By David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson
The research is clear: women in competitive, historically male, “up-our-out” organizational cultures make more money and enjoy more rapid promotions when they are mentored by men. Excellent mentors generally provide two clusters of critical mentoring functions. Psychosocial functions include encouragement, friendship, and emotional support. Career functions include direct teaching, advocacy, coaching, visibility, and challenge. Unfortunately, evidence demonstrates that many women with male mentors get shortchanged in the challenge department, especially when compared with their male peers.
Great mentors push, dare, and confront mentees. They are persistent in challenging mentees to do and experience things they might otherwise neglect or even actively avoid. This becomes even more important considering the range of trials and tribulations that women in male-centric organizations are likely to face.
In our interviews with successful professional women, many reiterated the importance of having male mentors provide direct, critical feedback. When Navy Lieutenant, Tabitha Strobel, one of the first women assigned to a U. S. Navy submarine, reported for duty, her male mentors were deliberate about pulling no punches. She got the same tough assignments and challenging watches as her male counterparts, all of it designed to immunize her for the operational challenges ahead. It took Susan Chambers, Vice President at Walmart, some time to appreciate that her mentor’s constant challenges were a clear expression of care and commitment: “He set such high standards and expectations; he expected me to move so much faster and to achieve so much more than I ever had before. At the time, I felt it was unfair. But it’s only as I look back that I realize I wouldn’t be in my current role without it. I wouldn’t have been able to get through the difficulties I’ve been through if I had not had someone who cared and expected that much early in my career.”
Challenging mentees to take on unfamiliar or anxiety-provoking tasks is not easy, nor is it fun to confront mentees who deliberately avoid challenges or perform below potential. But such is the nature of strong mentorship. Too many men are averse to pushing their female mentees the way they push their male protégés. Why do guys put on the kid gloves with women at work? There are at least three reasons.
First, men often harbor stereotypes about women’s capacities. Men are socialized to see women as delicate, mysterious, and less capable and resilient in the face of challenge. When implicit biases about female fragility lurk in the unconscious, men tend to underestimate women’s ability to tolerate stress and respond to challenge.
Second, many men enact social scripts for relationships with women that stem from their own socialization around gender and their experience with key role models. These “manscripts” are familiar to most people — father-daughter, chivalrous knight-damsel in distress — and in many situations may be helpful in reducing male anxiety about how to interact with women they care for at work. But these scripts can backfire, leading to overprotection and unnecessary rescuing when what she really needs is a firm push to try something that scares her or firm confrontation about where she needs to pick up the pace. Reflecting on her mentoring relationships with senior men, Rohini Anand, Senior Vice President at Sodexo thought she was protected from critical feedback in ways that female mentors did not hold back: “Looking back at what they didn’t do that hindered my success, my male mentors have never really given me critical feedback. Thinking of my female mentors in my previous positions, they would give me very good feedback in terms of where I needed to improve.”
Finally, some men may avoid challenging women because they are fearful that she may become “emotional” and cry. But when male mentors back off, pulling their challenge punches, or sugarcoating the truth about her performance, they inevitably fail their mentees when it comes to preparing them for future challenges. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the integration of women into the military’s intensive survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) school. Designed to inoculate pilots against captivity and interrogation should they be captured, we heard from SERE instructors that when women began to cry during the mock interrogations, male instructors would back off. Evolution and socialization causes guys to cringe and protect when women tear up. (It’s worth noting that a lot of the men cried too; but paradoxically, male instructors became even more brutal to male “prisoners” who cried). SERE instructors now receive education and awareness to ensure women receive the same level of stress as men. Anything less would leave them disadvantaged in the crucible of combat.
So what’s a male mentor for women to do?
First, recognize that challenge and critical feedback need not be inconsistent with empathic kindness and care. In fact, the former is most effective when delivered in a relationship defined by the latter. Growth-inducing challenge is interpreted by mentees as an expression of care and commitment when mentors demonstrate empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. According to renowned counseling psychologist Carl Rogers, empathy helps us learn to listen and understand mentees. The affirmation and inspiration born of empathy and unconditional acceptance create the solid relationship foundation in which challenging conversations can occur without triggering defensive reactions. Good corrective feedback is free of judgment and perceived attacks on a mentee’s competence.
Second, avoid pretense and be yourself with mentees. The genuine mentor inspires trust and commitment in their mentorships in part by simply being open and honest about relative shortcomings, always acknowledging the limits of one’s own knowledge and expertise. Sharing stories about our own professional stumbles along the way creates the relational bedrock of authenticity and trust that lends support when it’s time to deliver challenging feedback. In a real sense, it is a mentor’s genuine humility that affords him the right to deliver unvarnished brass-tacks feedback the mentee requires to sharpen her game and compete.
Third, unconditional regard signals to your mentee that you are all-in as a champion and ally, even when her performance flags. Rogers described unconditional regard as conveying a warm acceptance of a person’s experience, and appreciating them as valued colleague, no matter how they may be performing. To be most effective as a mentor, you must become skilled at delivering direct, transparent and meaningful feedback, but you must also do it thoughtfully. There is no room for anger and shaming in a mentoring relationship. Remember that empathy, genuineness, and unconditional regard create the trust required for growth-facilitating challenge and correction.
Last, don’t take shortcuts when it comes to challenging your mentee to tackle things she’d rather avoid. Strong mentors take the time to discern their mentees’ strengths and weaknesses. Then, they push mentees to develop and hone the skillsets required for success. Remember: inoculating your mentee for the trials and tribulations she’ll need to soar won’t always be particularly fun, but if her mentor won’t make the effort to build her immunity and resilience, who will? Although confronting a mentee’s avoidance of anxiety-inducing tasks and challenges might cause her discomfort — and sometimes, outright terror — an excellent mentor knows when to push their mentee outside their comfort zone. In the end, there simply is no substitute for exposure and experience to overcome anxiety.
Reframing difficult conversations as an obligation to mentees is a critical first step to prepare them for success. Excellent mentors who approach this obligation with moral courage and commitment will hear their mentees’ appreciation when they succeed in climbing the corporate ladder and outperform their protected and unchallenged peers.