Center for Mentoring Excellence

Mentoring Matters

August 2013
Volume 4 | Issue 5A
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Dr. Fran Kochan Interview with
Dr. Frances Kochan
Wayne T. Smith Distinguished Professor at Auburn University 

Culture plays out in mentoring relationships in both subtle and overt ways. Its importance cannot be underestimated. To help us understand more about its impact, influence and salience, we interviewed mentoring expert and author, Dr. Frances Kochan, Wayne T. Smith Distinguished Professor at Auburn University ( Auburn, AL). Her research and publications focus on the cultural aspects of the mentoring relationship, the mentoring process and mentoring programs. This is part one of our interview with her. Part two will appear next month.


MM: It has been said that culture trumps everything, how is that possible?


FK: Culture has two aspects. The one we generally think about involves external elements, such as, clothing, foods, and artifacts. These are visible and one can generally understand and respond to them-or at least attempt to be respectful of them.  However, culture also includes hidden elements that are understood primarily by those within the culture. Thus, a word, a gesture, the way one interacts with another, has a meaning for those within the culture that may carry very powerful messages of good, evil, caring, or disdain. These things are so deeply ingrained within us, that, as individuals we may react to something said or done in ways that are offensive to others, or which carry hidden meanings that transmit thoughts, ideas, or concepts that we are not aware of which can hinder or foster communication and relationships.


Hofstede and his colleagues posited four value dimensions present in national cultures that impact societies, organizations, and individuals: power distance, individualism-collectivism, masculinity-femininity, and uncertainty avoidance. He and his colleagues have also posited that when considering cultural factors, we must also examine the degree to which cultures focus on the past, the present, and the future.  These cultural aspects are built into the individual, the organization, and the society in ways that may prevent us from understanding and communicating effectively with one another even when we may want to do so.


MM: How are cultural influences embedded in the mentoring context and how do they impact mentoring programs?  


FK: Cultural mores are a part of organizations and of societies and each organization has an overarching culture within which it operates. The mores, beliefs and values of the organization are embedded in its policies, the relationships within the organization, the goals, and the operational procedures.  Since people are part of an organization, they also add a cultural dimension to the environment. Thus, though an organization tends to have its own culture, there are often subcultures operating within it.   


The overarching organizational culture or subcultures within it can hinder or facilitate the mentoring process.  For example, if one is operating in a culture where rules are stringent and individuals are expected to follow them explicitly, it may be very difficult to develop close working relationships in which mentoring is fostered and individual needs are considered in the workplace. Likewise, if the environment is highly competitive, it may be difficult to create mentoring programs that foster the professional growth of individuals who might then be in a position to compete. In an environment that fosters creativity, teamwork, and collaborative engagement in developing ideas and setting goals, the concept of mentoring may be a natural extension of the culture and happen without the need for formal programming.  In Creating a Mentoring Culture, Lois Zachary notes, the organization or context, is the soil in which mentoring either grows or wilts. That culture must be prepared, tended, and monitored if mentoring is to succeed.


MM: What advice about culture would you give those seeking to develop and implement mentoring programs?


FK: First and foremost, understand the purposes of your mentoring program. Be aware that the purpose carries a cultural meaning. Thus, if what you want to do is to maintain the culture as it is, then the role of the mentor will be to transmit the mores, customs, and ways of operating to the mentee. The role of the mentee will be to accept and replicate what is taught or expected of him or her. For example, in a hospital, where a particular procedure must be carried out in an exact manner, or where procedures must be formalized in a particular way, mentoring focused on just those types of issues might follow this traditional pattern and purpose. However, if the organization wants to foster change, such as incorporating more diversity within the corporate or leadership structure, or stimulating divergent thinking while still maintaining the core ideas of the organization, the mentor would serve more as a partner with the mentee, encouraging the mentee to share his or her own ideas. In this situation, the mentor also becomes a learner who is growing and developing within the mentor/mentee process. 


In addition to being very clear about how the mentoring program relates to the goals and purposes of the organization, those creating such programs must engage in meaningful analyses about the elements within the culture that will foster or hinder the creation and implementation of mentoring programs.  For example, if one of the purposes of a mentoring program is to develop leadership among women and/or minority groups, but there is a culture in which these groups are not respected or accepted, it will be very difficult for the program to flourish. Thus, it may require conversation, training, and the creation of new understandings and a new culture in order for the program to succeed.  This is one of the reasons that it is imperative that upper level management provides visible support for mentoring programs including time for people to engage in the process and a reward system that honors those who become involved and support the effort.


MM: How does culture influence mentoring relationships?


FK: Our cultural backgrounds influence our understandings of self, others, the world and the ways in which we conceptualize reality. It influences our words, actions, and interactions.  Societal beliefs and values impact the manner in which culture is perceived and structured.  For example, the relationships between mentor and mentee in Asian cultures tend to be hierarchical and differential.  


Likewise, differences related to factors such as age, social class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation can hinder mentoring relationships because of a lack of understanding, openness, and variations in values.  Thus, it may be difficult for a mentee from a traditionally marginalized group to be able to openly share feelings and concerns with a mentor from a more privileged background. Likewise, it might be difficult for the mentor in this situation to relate to the mentee's concerns.


These differences can hinder mentoring relationships and programs in powerful ways. An example is a mentoring program in which college students from upper middle class backgrounds served as mentors to high school students who had lower socio-economic status. The mentors found it difficult to understand their mentees and the mentees were not comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns with their mentors. This lack of understanding caused the program to flounder as these issues had not been considered as part of the training or discussions with either group. This type of problem also often surfaces in organizations that are seeking to diversify their workforce and foster diversity in leadership roles which, because of past history and/organizational culture, do not have sufficient numbers of people from these diverse groups who can serve as mentors to those who need to be mentored.


MM: How do you overcome these types of problems?


FK: One way to overcome some of the problems that may occur because of these differences in cultural background and understanding and to deal with a shortage of minorities and women who may not be available to mentor new employees, is to create mentoring dyads or triads and even mentoring networks as part of the mentoring process.  This can foster the concept of mentoring and make it more accessible to more people. It can also help create peer mentoring among and between mentees and aid in developing a mentoring culture within a group or organization.  


Our interview with Dr. Kochan will continue

in the September edition of Mentoring Matters.