Social skill in workplace mentoring relationships.INTRODUCTION
Mentoring is a developmental relationship that involves close interpersonal interactions between a mentor and their protege and it has become a popular research topic as evidenced by the various meta-analyses summarizing the literature (Allen, Eby, Poteet, Lentz, & Lima, 2004; Eby, Allen, Evans, Ng, & DuBois, 2008; Underhill, 2005). In general, results from these meta-analyses suggest that mentoring relationships provide positive outcomes for proteges especially in a career setting, such as higher job satisfaction, salaries, and supervisor support (e.g., Eby et al., 2008). Although there is ample research on the benefits of mentoring relationships, limited research is available on the process or factors relating to the cultivation and maintenance of successful mentoring relationships (Wanberg, Welsh, & Hezlett, 2003). Nonetheless, in her seminal work, Kram (1985) suggested that interpersonal skills may influence how mentoring relationships are initiated and developed, although surprisingly, the role of interpersonal skills in a mentoring relationship has received little attention. Therefore, the goal of this theoretical paper is to discuss how interpersonal skills, such as social skill, influence the mentoring process. In doing so, we build on Kram's (1985) suggestions to understand the role of interpersonal skills in mentoring relationships.
Social skill is an individual's ability to successfully interpret and manage social interactions (Witt & Ferris, 2003), and research indicates that it is positively associated with job performance, promotion, salary, and psychosocial adjustment (Ferris, Hochwarter, Douglas, Blass, & Kolodinsky, 2002). Individuals with strong social skill also tend to experience positive social interactions (Riggio & Zimmerman, 1991). Nonetheless, little is known about whether or how individual social skill influences the workplace mentoring process, although it seems likely that both mentor and protege social skill influences the costs and benefits of a mentoring relationship.
The idea that social skill influences mentoring relationships may seem self-evident, but we aim to go beyond simply stating the obvious. More specifically, given that mentoring relationships involves costs and benefits we utilize social exchange theory to examine the underlying mechanisms of mentoring relationships. We first provide an overview of mentoring relationships, social exchange theory, and social skill. We then describe how social skill influences mentoring relationships in the initiation and cultivation phase of a mentoring relationship from a dyadic perspective. Finally, we discuss the implications of our propositions for various mentoring topics.
Traditional Mentoring Relationship
Mentoring involves an older, more experienced adult supporting, coaching, and sponsoring a younger individual (Kram, 1985), and research indicates that mentoring leads to positive career outcomes for proteges, such as higher salary and career satisfaction (Eby et al., 2008). In general, proteges receive two broad types of support from their mentors: career and psychosocial (Allen, Eby, O'Brien, & Lentz, 2008; Kram, 1983). The career support includes sponsorship, exposure and visibility, coaching, and protection. Through career support, proteges learn the skills needed for career advancement and are offered the opportunity for challenging and high visibility assignments. The psychosocial support includes role modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling, and friendship. These functions enhance and develop proteges' inner growth, which contributes to higher job satisfaction and self-esteem (Allen et al., 2004).
Kram (1983, 1985) proposed that mentoring relationships consists of four phases: initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition. The initiation phase lasts six to 12 months and involves setting expectations about the relationship. The cultivation phase typically lasts two to five years and it is during this phase which proteges typically receive a wide range of career and psychosocial functions. During the separation phase, the protege seeks more autonomy and during the redefinition phase, the dyad members begin to see each other as peers. We describe in our paper the role of social skill in the first two phases of the relationship: the initiation and the cultivation of a mentoring relationship. We focus on these two stages because they appear to be most important for proteges because only relationships that reach the cultivation phase can provide employees with the types of mentoring assistance discussed above.
While it is well understood that proteges tend to benefit from the mentoring process, involvement in a mentoring relationship can also be beneficial for the mentors (Kram, 1985). The benefits for mentors include better job performance, a supportive network, personal satisfaction, and gratification (Allen & Eby, 2003; Allen, Poteet, & Burroughs, 1997; Kalbfeisch, 2002; Ragins & Scandura, 1999). However, mentoring relationships are not without costs, which can include a drain of time and energy for proteges and mentors as well as the risk that a poor performing protege can reflect negatively on the mentor (Ragins & Cotton, 1993; Ragins & Scandura, 1999). Given that mentoring relationships involve the exchange of costs and benefits, we draw upon social exchange theory to understand underlying mechanisms that influence the formation of mentoring relationships.
Social Exchange Theory
Blau (1964) described social exchange as an individual's voluntary actions toward another person that are motivated by an expected return from the other person. Unlike an economic exchange in which a contract specifies the exact transactional details in advance, the content of a social exchange is not explicitly specified. Rather, the expectation is that the other person will reciprocate at some point in the future. Another fundamental difference between social exchange and economic exchange is that the former creates feelings of trust and appreciation while the latter does not (Blau, 1964).
Mentoring relationships are social exchanges that provide intrinsic and extrinsic benefits to both proteges and mentors. Intrinsic rewards include attachment, affection, pleasure, satisfaction, and social support, whereas extrinsic benefits include advice, invitations, assistance, or compliance (Blau, 1964; Yukl, 1994). Not surprisingly, individuals, such as potential mentors and proteges, participate in relationships in which they expect to gain greater benefits and incur fewer costs (Homans, 1958). In particular, individuals engage in relationships when they believe both parties will benefit from the relationship in the long run (Blau, 1964). Nevertheless, there is evidence that some mentoring relationships can be ineffective and even harmful to proteges and mentors (Eby & Allen, 2002; Eby, Butts, Lockwood, & Simon, 2004; Scandura, 1998). We theorize that social skill plays a role in influencing the formation and cultivation of a mentoring relationship.
Social skill has been conceptualized as a skill that encompasses the sub-skills to effectively sense social cues, accurately interpret interpersonal dynamics, and flexibly adjust one's behavior to respond to social demands (Hochwarter, Kiewitz, Gundlach, & Stoner, 2004; Lawler & Finegold, 2000; Witt & Ferris, 2003; Wu & Turban, 2009). Although the concept of social skill is not new in the training and the communication literatures, management scholars have just started to study the effect of social skill in career outcomes during the last decade (Ferris, Witt, & Hochwarter, 2001; Hochwarter, Witt, Treadway, & Ferris, 2006; Witt & Ferris, 2003). Social skill or the ability to effective interaction with others allows individuals to present favorable self images, which is important at the relationship development stage. Furthermore, individuals with strong social skill are found to be more likeable and more successful at maintaining intimate, high quality relationships (Riggio & Zimmerman, 1991). Nevertheless, how social skill influences mentoring relationships is not clear. In the next section, we discuss how social skill affects the initiation phase of a mentoring relationship and the dyadic effect of both the protege and mentor's social skill on the cultivation stage of the mentoring process.
The Direct Effect of Social Skill on Mentoring Formation
We theorize that social skill plays a role in the formation of a mentoring relationship and examine the formation process from a perspective that people with high social skill are more likely to be sought out as mentoring partners. As noted earlier, having a protege can result in both costs and benefits for mentors. The costs include the time and energy invested in the relationship as well as risks associated with having poor performing proteges, which can reflect poorly on the mentors' judgment and ability (Ragins & Cotton, 1993; Ragins & Scandura, 1999). Furthermore, if proteges' are unable to act in a socially appropriately manner, their behavior can result in adverse consequences for mentors, such as a negative reputation and negative social networks (Labianca, Brass, & Gray, 1998). There are also benefits for mentors when engaging in a successful mentoring relationship. First, mentors may become more effective and efficient if they can delegate work to proteges. Second, they can rely on proteges for information and support for further advancement in the organization. Third, the mentors' reputation may be enhanced when their proteges are successful. Last, mentors may gain satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment from sharing their knowledge and helping less experienced colleagues (Bozionelos, 2004; Ragins & Scandura, 1999). Based on social exchange theory, we believe that mentors seek relationships with proteges who are expected to provide higher benefits and lower costs. For example, Allen and Poteet (1999) found that mentors tend to choose a protege based on their perceptions of the protege's ability or potential, and that the ideal qualities of proteges include listening and communication skills, patience, and the ability to read and understand others, that is, higher levels of social skill. Thus, proteges with strong social skill are more likely to be sought out by mentors because they are expected to provide greater benefits than proteges with weak social skill.
Conversely, mentors with greater social skill were perceived, by potential proteges, as more proficient in providing mentoring functions and were better liked and respected than mentors with less interpersonal skills (Olian, Carroll, Giannantonio, & Feren, 1988). In particular, such mentors were viewed as more competent and resourceful. In addition, mentors with greater levels of social skill appear to be friendly, which encourages pleasant social interactions with others and can develop a network with a wide range of people. A wide network means more information, resources, and career sponsorship opportunities for proteges, which are important in advancing proteges' career (Burt, 1992; Seibert, Kraimer, & Liden, 2001). Thus, one might expect that mentors with higher social skill are able to provide better career related benefits compared with mentors with lower social skill. Therefore, we theorize that individuals with higher levels of social skill are more likely to be sought out as mentoring partners than individuals with lower levels of social skill.
P1 Individuals (both mentors and proteges) with higher levels of social skill will be more likely to be sought out by others to form mentoring relationships.
Social skill is especially critical in the formation of a diversified mentoring relationship. Ragins (2002) defined diversified mentorship as a relationship that involves a mentor and a protege with different group membership, which may include race and age. Although diversified mentoring relationships typical refer to mentors and proteges who differ in their physical traits, diversity can include both "surface" and "deep-level" characteristics (Harrison, Price, Gavin, & Florey, 2002; Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999). Surface-level diversity involves the differences among group members in biological characteristics, while deep-level diversity involves differences among members' attitudes, beliefs, and values. Research shows that mentors tend to choose proteges who are perceived to be similar to themselves in terms of deep-level characteristics, such as values and interests (Allen et al., 1997), and the satisfaction of the relationship increases with perceived deep-level similarity (Ensher & Murphy, 1997). Hence, the ability to identify deep-level common grounds is important in forming a mentoring relationship.
Unfortunately, individuals tend to form their first impressions of others based on surface-level characteristics and act towards the person based on the stereotypes associated with such characteristics (Turban, Dougherty, & Lee, 2002). Stereotypes are often inaccurate, and can negatively influence the perceived deep-level similarity between a potential mentoring dyad (Ragins, 2002). We theorize that social skill is important in helping potential mentoring dyads with diverse backgrounds move beyond surface level differences and uncover shared interests and values. Highly socially skilled individuals are observant and tend to "read between the lines," which allows them to attend to deeper aspects of the other person. These individuals are also able to effectively communicate common interests and values to their potential mentoring partners. Therefore, diversified dyads, using their strong social skill, are able to discover underlying similarities and facilitate the formation of a diversified mentoring relationship.
P2 Potential mentoring dyads with high social skill are able to establish deep-level similarity and successfully form a diversified mentoring relationship.
Dyadic Effects of Mentor and Protege Social Skill
The cultivation phase of a mentoring relationship, which lasts two to five years, is when the dyad members get to know one another at a more intimate level. Proteges' expectations of their mentors, which are formed earlier, are tested, and the career and psychosocial functions, peak during this phase. Generally, career functions appear first as the mentors provide challenging assignment and sponsorship and as the relationship becomes more intimate, more psychosocial functions are provided (Kram, 1983). Although mentoring relationships typically are formed to help proteges, like all interpersonal relationships, mentoring relationships are subject to difficulties and even relational dysfunctions (Eby, Durley, Evans, & Ragins, 2008). For example, both mentors and proteges reported that negative experiences in developmental relationships resulted from mismatches within the dyad or difficulties in working with the other dyad partner (Eby et al., 2004; Eby & McManus, 2004). Therefore, research shows that mentoring relationships vary in terms of how effective they are and can range from effective to dysfunctional with marginally effective and ineffective in between (Eby & McManus, 2004; Eby et al., 2004; Eby et al., 2008). We theorize that relational difficulties are more likely to occur when one or both dyad members have low social skill. More specifically, we examine the mentors and proteges' social skill and discuss theoretically how various combinations of social skill can influence the overall effectiveness of a mentoring relationship.
An effective mentoring relationship takes place when mentors provide appropriate mentoring functions to their proteges and both parties have developed a trusting relationship. To achieve an effective mentoring relationship, both mentoring partners need to be able to effectively interact with each other; hence, a high-high social skill combination is needed. Mentors with higher levels of social skill are able to develop deeper interpersonal relationships by being a good listener and supporter (Riggio & Zimmerman, 1991), which is important for fostering relationship bonds. In addition, highly socially skilled mentors are able to provide proteges with interactions that are lively, engaging, and interesting. As for proteges, highly socially skilled proteges know how to effectively express their career needs and manage interpersonal differences, thus are able to seek higher amounts of mentoring assistance than proteges with lower social skill. Therefore, we theorize that a highly socially skilled mentoring pair is capable of building a more trusting, enduring, and pleasant relationship.
P3 An effective mentoring relationship is more likely to develop when both the mentor and the protege have strong social skill.
A marginally effective relationship occurs when a mentoring relationship is "teetered on the edge between being effective and ineffective," such as when a protege's performance is below expectations or when a protege is unwilling to learn from their mentor (Eby & McManus, 2004, p. 259). Because this type of relationship is largely affected by proteges, we theorize that marginally effective relationships are more likely to occur when a protege has low social skill. As stated earlier, proteges with low social skill are less able to "read between the lines" and pick up essential non-verbal and verbal cues from their mentors in terms of when they should enter or leave a social situation or what they should say to an important client or manager. Therefore, proteges with low social skill might not be able to reap all the benefits from a mentoring relationship and meeting the expectations from their mentors. Proteges with low social skill, who are unwilling to learn, are also less likely to know how to disguise their reluctance to learn or engage in impression management in front of their mentors. They may even act in an inappropriate manner towards their mentors' guidance, which can potentially turn the relationship into ineffective or even dysfunctional. Therefore, we propose a low-high social skill combination because highly socially skilled mentors know how to deal with an insensitive or non-performing protege in a polite manner and are able to maintain a somewhat functional relationship despite their proteges' deficiencies.
P4 A marginally effective mentoring relationship is more likely to develop when a protege with low social skill is paired with a mentor with high social skill.
Ineffective mentoring relationships can take place when a person has positive intentions toward another person but has difficulty in personal interactions (Scandura, 1998). Although this type of relationship can be influenced by both mentors and proteges, we theorize that ineffective relationships are more likely to occur when a socially skilled protege is paired with a mentor with poor social skill. Mentors' social skill plays a critical role in ineffective relationships because mentors determine the amount of mentoring provided to a protege. In particular, mentors with low social skill are less able to identify the need of their proteges, which can lead to low levels of mentoring assistance offered to the proteges. In addition, these mentors are not able to accurately receive and decode verbal and nonverbal messages from their protege, which can create misunderstanding. Thus, mentors with low social skill are more likely to develop difficulties in the relationship and severely limit the mentoring functions provided to their protege. We theorize that it is critical for these mentors to have socially skilled proteges because these proteges can prevent the already ineffective relationship from becoming dysfunctional by responding to their mentors in a positive or neutral manner. Thus, a high-low social skill combination is proposed.
P5 An ineffective mentoring relationship is more likely to occur when a high socially skilled protege is paired with a low socially skilled mentor.
A dysfunctional relationship can result from destructive relational patterns or interpersonal difficulties (Eby et al., 2008). Although the causes of a dysfunctional relationship are multifaceted, we expect that mentors' and proteges' social skill may be one possible factor. In particular, we theorize that social skill influences dysfunctional relationships by causing interpersonal problems, such as interpersonal conflicts, and that interpersonal conflicts are more likely to develop when mentors and proteges both have poor social skill. Proteges with lower social skill may seek assistance from mentors at the wrong moment and in a socially inappropriate manner, such as being aloof or too aggressive. The inappropriate behavior can irritate mentors and reduce the subsequent mentoring assistance provided to the protege. Low socially skilled mentors, on the other hand, are less able to provide developmental assistance in an effective manner and have lower sensitivity toward their proteges' needs, which can lead to disagreement and even conflicts. In addition, their insensitive and possibly offensive interactions can create a negative spiral that leads to anger and resentment. Thus, we theorize that dyads with low social skill, although a rare occurrence, are likely to lead to a dysfunctional mentoring relationship.
P6 A dysfunctional mentoring relationship is more likely to develop when both the mentors and the proteges have low social skill.
To recap, social skill is critical in both the development and cultivation phases of a mentoring relationship. In particular, mentoring dyads' social skill influences the perceived cost and benefit and the overall effectiveness of the mentoring relationship.
Though there is a large body of knowledge relating mentoring to career outcomes, the dynamic processes by which mentoring relationships are initiated and developed are not well known. In an attempt to instigate such research we discussed how social skill influences the formation and the cultivation stages of mentoring relationships. We theorized that both proteges and mentors' social skill influences the extent to which they are viewed as attractive partners and especially when the mentoring dyads have diversified backgrounds. We also proposed that both mentoring partners' social skill influences mentoring relationships and examined how different social skill combinations affect mentoring effectiveness. We believe this paper contributes to the literature by (1) combining the social skill and mentoring literatures to further understand how individual characteristics influence mentoring outcomes; (2) exploring Kram's suggestion to examine the influence of social skill in the cultivation of mentoring relationships; and (3) highlighting the dyadic perspective of relationships, which is relatively rare in the mentoring literature.
As discussed in our paper that the selection of mentoring partner is important because of the costs associated. In particular, having a non-performing protege can drain a mentor's time and energy and having an ineffective mentor can lead to unpleasant consequences for proteges. Hence, potential mentoring partners should observe each other's interpersonal skills before starting a mentoring relationship, whether it is a formal or informal mentoring relationship. Although informal mentoring relationships tend to be more effective than formal mentoring relationships, research shows that formal mentoring is better than no mentoring (Chao, Walz, & Gardner, 1992; Ragins & Cotton, 1999; for a review see Wanberg et al., 2003). Furthermore, some evidence suggests that how the formal mentoring program is designed impacts protege benefits and that a formal mentor program "is only as good as the mentor it produces" (Ragins, Cotton, & Miller, 2000, p. 1192). Therefore, on a practical note, we suggest that firms may want to train participants (both mentors and proteges) in social skill. In addition, researchers might attempt to conduct a field experiment to examine whether training in participants' social skill impacts the benefits of the mentor relationship for both the protege and the mentor.
In addition to informal and formal mentoring, there is a third type of mentoring called developmental networks. Developmental networks refer to relationships that exist in network form (Higgins & Kram, 2001). Compared to the traditional mentoring relationship, which is typically a one-to-one dyadic relationship, developmental network relationships are in the form of one-to-many relationships, and involve a protege and a group of developers who provide developmental assistance to the protege (Higgins & Kram, 2001). Developers can include peers, subordinates, family members, friends, supervisors, and senior employees who either work in the same organization as the protege or outside of the organization. A developmental network perspective conceptualizes proteges as having the autonomy to select, initiate, develop, maintain, and manage a network of developers who are within or outside of the protege's organization (Higgins, 2000; Higgins & Thomas, 2001; Ibarra, 1993, 1995). As such, the developmental network perspective is considerably broader than the traditional conceptualization of mentoring and we believe that mentors' and proteges' social skill is extremely important in cultivating and maintaining effective developmental networks. Given the space constraint we do not provide as much detail, but our intent is to stimulate more research on the role of social skill in developmental relationships and networks.
More broadly, we hope that our paper encourages more research into the role of individual differences, beyond demographics, in influencing mentoring relationships. Much of the research examining individual differences in mentoring research has examined demographic characteristics such as gender, race, and age (Noe, Greenberger, & Wang, 2002), and there is a surprising dearth of research examining individual differences such as social skill and personality characteristics (Wu, Turban, & Cheung, 2007). As noted by Wanberg and her colleagues (2003), employees' ability and skills influence their experiences as proteges and mentors, although, to date, there is little research in this area. We agree with Wanberg et al. (2003), who stated that research into protege and mentor individual differences should be a research priority, and we hope that our paper provides some guidance to scholars interested in conducting such research.
In summary, the management of workplace mentoring relationships is important as research shows that mentoring leads to positive career outcomes (Allen et al., 2008). Thus, by examining the role of interpersonal skills, such as social skill, we contribute to the understanding of the dynamic of mentoring process. In particular, we extend the management literature by examining the role of social skill in mentoring relationships from a dyadic perspective, which is critical since mentoring involves the dynamic interactions of both the mentors and proteges. We hope that this paper will stimulate and encourage more research to study the effects of individual differences in mentoring relationships, and especially from a dyadic perspective.
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Sharon Y. Wu, K12 Inc.
Daniel B. Turban, University of Missouri
Yu Ha Cheung, Hong Kong Baptist University