In business they say that everything is about relationship. Yet in the traditional model of mentoring in the workplace we see a hierarchical process of support for limited purposes such as changing the worker to suit the employing organisation or the industry. An older mentor, often in a position of responsibility or power over the learner, assists a younger protege.
This paternalistic mentoring maintains a distance between those who have knowledge to pass on to workers lower on the hierarchical ladder, and the receivers of that knowledge. Such mentoring focuses on right instruction, learning and attitudes.
The literature emphasises the importance of regular, scheduled, structured face to face meetings and of having specific development areas and goals. While we agree that regular face to face meetings and clear goals are important, we believe that mentoring in the workplace is most successful when it focuses on the quality of the realtionship.and on establishing trust through respectful attitudes and behaviour.
Our research has shown that it is vital that the worker - in this case the apprentice - is regarded as a valued equal who happens to have specific support needs. While the mentor may be more experienced than the apprentice in one or more areas of development; the agenda should mutually driven and power and authority should be irrelevant or ‘parked’. The mentoring relationship thus becomes one of supportive friendship in which the apprentice and her/his needs are considered holistically.
Ragins and Verbos (2006) believe that relational mentoring is the highest quality mentoring state. They attribute to relational mentoring the ability to develop empathic, empowering processes that create personal growth, development and enrichment for both mentors and learners. They claim that relationships have the potential to increase the learning development of individuals through new knowledge, resources, identities, and psychological growth.
Because they have shown equal respect and empathy , the mentors are trusted, and they succeed in maintaining a supportive connection with apprentices that raises retention rates and qualifications completions. But that's not all relational mentoring can do. Guidance is needed as much for understanding workplace culture as for understanding formal learning and on job learning requirements. My glazing apprentice study (2009) showed how young trainees from ‘trades families’ fitted more easily into the culture of the workplace, thus accelerating learning.
A later study of the fire service revealed the same phenomenon: women who stayed the distance in the fire service either as volunteers or career fire fighters, tended to come from families who had been engaged in the fire service for generations. This cultural support helps learners to see past some of the difficulties they encounter, and to stay the distance when the apprenticeship gets tough.
Relational mentors tend to 'stand in' as 'trades family' members that some apprentices lack. They become advocates for these learners, helping and representing them when they get into difficulty in their jobs or with training. They are able to support apprentices to negotiate workplace cultural issues.
In all, studies have shown that when mentors take on apprentices as whole persons and attend to their wider apprenticeship needs, the learning, and achievement, looks after itself.