Article: How cognitive biases influence mentorship programs in the workplace


How cognitive biases influence mentorship programs in the workplace

Read on to learn about the kinds of biases between mentor/sponsor and mentees and how HR leaders help break them.
How cognitive biases influence mentorship programs in the workplace

“I love my job and my manager tells me that I have performed well in the last six months that I have joined the team. But I would like my mentor to help me with technical expertise,” said a young engineer. “I always receive feedback on communication and networking but everyone else seems to have the technical know-how.”

To sustain diversity and inclusion initiatives, organisations today are setting up formal mentorship/sponsorship programs. But how effective are those initiatives? Research suggests that women and other minority groups often do not have equal access to networks and informal mentoring relationships that can accelerate their careers.

The role of the mentor is to encourage, advice and support a mentee. On the other hand, a sponsor plays a more active role in the career trajectory of the mentee by vouching for them. However, like all human relationships these too are prone to unconscious biases.

Our past experiences as well as commonly heard stereotypes, create filters through which we assess everyday data. For example we may observe a situation and then use these filters to interpret it. Our interpretation may not be the truth of the situation but it is how our mind has made sense of the data. These filters are our unconscious biases. They determine the direction in which our minds find meaning and make important decisions.

In my work as a diversity and inclusion consultant, I have observed how cognitive biases influence mentor/sponsor and mentee relationships. I have also explored some useful steps to mitigate bias in these formal initiatives and build inclusive, effective and sustainable mentorship programs.

Affinity bias

“I see a young me in my mentee”

Three junior associates have requested Gaurav to mentor them. Gaurav knows that he only has time for two. He wants to invest fully in the success of his mentees. He thinks to himself,  “Just like me Siddharth and Rohit also went to XIIM, I can just see myself in them. They have so much potential to grow in the organisation. Jayesh may benefit from another mentor.”

Our minds prefer similarity and familiarity. We are easily drawn to people who we believe are like us. This is the affinity bias - feeling a closeness to people who remind us of ourselves.

The affinity bias strongly influences the selection process of mentors and mentees. Mentors tend to exercise similar-to-me bias and select mentees who are likely to follow a similar path and use similar techniques to progress in their careers. In the same way mentees are also drawn to mentors who they aspire to be. Since on an average more than 80% of leadership in India are male, mentors choosing mentee’s who are like themselves does not add value to the organisations diversity and inclusion agenda.

Recency bias

“That’s not how I would react now.”


“Is it how I would have reacted back then?”

Anuradha went to meet her mentor Smitha. She looked very disturbed. When Smitha asked Anuradha if she was alright she explained that she is the only female employee in her team. Her colleagues often share messages with sexual content on the team WhatsApp group. Sometimes in passing they will direct similar explicit jokes towards her. This makes her feel very out of place in the team and she really wishes this behaviour would stop but does not know what to do.

Smitha is very confused hearing this. “Why don’t you just voice your discomfort.” she replies. “If I was in your position I would have raised my voice and expressed my annoyance.”

Why was Smitha unable to relate to Anuradha’s dilemma? This is an example of recency bias. This is the phenomenon where a person easily remembers something that has happened recently, compared to remembering something that may have occurred a while back.

When Smitha shared this with a colleague, her colleague responded saying “I completely agree with you now. But when I started my career like Anuradha - young and new to the team all I wanted to do was fit-in and be recognised for my work. At that point I too did not have the courage to voice my discomfort.”

Mentors are often in senior roles and it is likely that they may have faced similar challenges in the early stages of their career. However, as they gain visibility and clout in the organization, the recency bias makes it difficult for a mentor to fully empathise with the mentee’s challenge in the early stages of their career.

Descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes

A sponsor is often someone in a senior position who believes strongly in a mentee’s potential. Believing that the organisation will benefit from the mentee’s expertise, the sponsor is likely to use their position to help the mentee advance in the organisation. This support goes beyond advice or guidance.

Here, a sponsor explicitly recommends the mentee for certain positions within the organisation. Identification of potential and strategic placement of a highly skilled mentee is also beneficial to the sponsor. It gives them a better recognition and circle of influence in the organisation. Anyone can choose to be a mentor but a sponsor must be someone who the mentee works closely with, someone who can influence their progression in the organisation.

Now our mind uses past experiences, stereotypes and presumptions to create filters as we interact with people. Descriptive stereotypes are how we describe the characteristics of a social group like their attributes, roles, and behaviours, i.e. what members of a group are like. For example, we may describe women as soft-spoken and co-operative.

Prescriptive stereotypes is when the manner in which we describe a group prescribes how we interact with members of that group. We assume that they should uphold the characteristics by which we choose to see them. Thus, we would not expect soft spoken and co-operative women to speak up or disagree during a meeting.

A research by the Center for Talent and Innovation (CTI) suggests the influence of race on sponsorship programs. The stereotypes about a race set the expectation of success or risk about the individual’s performance. Their research suggests that executives of color feel that sponsoring an employee of color is a riskier proposition. On the other hand, employees of color are less likely to trust an executive of color to successfully sponsor them as they view these executives as having lesser political assets in the organisation.

Strategy and conclusion

To avoid the affinity bias in the selection process, companies are now adopting tools to assist mentors and mentees to make informed choices. This method has proven to be beneficial to both parties, thus making the relationship more sustainable.

As a mentor your advice will often be based on assumptions and beliefs that have worked for you, but that may not always hold true for your mentee. Like Smitha, a mentor may find it difficult to give objective advice to the mentee on personal challenges like work -life balance. There have been many changes in labor laws, work policies and attitudes towards work life balance which may be very different compared to twenty years ago. It is important for mentors to be better equipped with knowledge of these company policies or make a conscious effort to educate themselves in order to support the mentee better.

When your mentee comes to you with a problem, it is natural for you to refer to your own story when trying to advise them. However, a more useful and objective way might be to ask more open questions such as,

  • Could you explain it to me with an example?
  • I get the feeling that maybe….
  • Do you think if you try this it would help?

Sponsorship/mentorship programs are beneficial to both employees and the organisation. Mentees better understand the organisation’s values and how they can grow internally.  For a mentor or a sponsor who has been with the organisation or in the industry for a long time, the mentee- mentor relationship provides an insight into new ideas and perspectives that the mentee brings.  This makes the mentor more empathetic and a better leader and as the company grows it is able to source talent in-house for new projects and vacant leadership roles.

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Topics: Diversity, #EmployeeEngagementIdeas, #GuestArticle

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