Mentoring programs seem like a good idea in their own right. But when I was recently asked to review an academic school’s mentoring program, I was surprised to discover how many mentees approach mentoring with a sense of fear.
The reason seems to be that when they already feel like they can’t keep up in academia, they have a hard time not feeling inadequate when well-meaning older colleagues are telling them how they’re making it, a stream to produce seemingly superhuman results.
What young graduates really need is someone who appreciates the pressures they face and helps them maintain their confidence enough to keep going. Some of us are fortunate to have friends who can help us put the pieces back together when our grant applications are rejected and gently challenge our self-limiting beliefs. But what about those who aren’t so lucky?
My recommendation to the school that commissioned my review was to convert their mentoring program into a coaching program.
Unlike traditional academic mentors, coaches work with their clients across the spectrum of their work and personal lives, helping them develop more effective approaches and mindsets. And the evidence suggests that a good coach can mean the difference between striving for change and actually changing the way you work.
In his 2021 book What works in executive coaching, Erik de Haan, director of the Center for Coaching at Hult International Business School, found 35 relevant randomized controlled trials. He concluded that all but three had significant advantages for coached (experimental) groups over control groups. These benefits included improved job skills, knowledge and confidence; improved assessments of their effectiveness by their managers; greater self-confidence, goal achievement and job satisfaction; improved resilience, workplace well-being and job satisfaction; improved health and life satisfaction; and less depression, stress and burnout.
In other words, the personalized mentoring and motivation offered through coaching can enable people to bounce back from and reshape academic rejection, find new meaning in their work, and prioritize what matters most.
One of the reasons is that empathy is at the heart of coaching. When we identify with each other and create space for reflection, we begin to practice self-compassion – which in turn improved our ability to be genuinely compassionate towards those around us.
If compassion is “empathy plus action,” as defined by Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin, then it’s not just something you’re born with; It’s something you can learn to do better. And we invest in training to make us better researchers, educators, and leaders. So why not invest in training to build compassion skills? We could all be better researchers, educators, and leaders if we could better empathize with our peers and understand the types of interventions that might meet the needs we perceive.
The problem is that very few academics are aware of the benefits of coaching – and few universities offer it to those who want it. Training existing mentors on how to coach could make a difference. However, it is even better to invest in well-trained specialists. Health coaches, for example (my wife is one of many who now work with researchers) can work on work-life balance, diet, exercise, health and well-being.
This is much cheaper than the occupational health visits and countless lost days caused by illness. And prevention is much more humane than our previous approach of picking up the pieces after everything went wrong.
Compassion training is becoming more common in the business world, but if you find such standalone programs wouldn’t appeal to your peers, why not incorporate it into your leadership programs? Or include it in equality and diversity training; perhaps it could allow us to go deeper than ticking boxes and really put ourselves in the shoes of our least fortunate peers. This will allow us to name privilege in a way that educates and nurtures, rather than condemning those who are unaware of their privilege.
We may not have the courage or resources to make all the changes we would like to see in the world. But if a few more of us felt able to bring our authentic selves to science, maybe together we could create the kind of nurturing workplace that so many of us crave, where we dream and do our best work can afford to live.
As the Persian poet Rumi said: “Yesterday I was smart, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I change.” You can be the culture you want to see.
Mark Reed is Professor of Rural Entrepreneurship and Director of the Thriving Natural Capital Challenge Center at SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College). He is CEO of Fast Track Impact, which provides health resilience training and coaching. his latest book impact culture, will be released on March 25th. Most of it is Available open accessaccompanied by free resources and a year of free training and events.