Effective mentorship doesn’t have to be about seniority

Whenever a mentor-mentee relationship is mentioned, the same stereotypical image of an older, distinguished mentor imparting their wisdom to a younger, eager to learn pupil invariably comes to mind. But, does a mentorship have to be based on seniority and superiority to be successful?

Not at all, according to a new study conducted at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Moreover, researchers found that peer mentorships are oftentimes more accessible, helpful, and effective than traditional mentor-mentee relationships.

A whole lot of red tape usually comes along with a typical mentor-mentee arrangement. Esteemed mentors may only have a few minutes here or there for their mentees, and even when advice is given, it’s doled out in codes and riddles far more often than actionable suggestions. Conversely, peer mentorship is usually characterized by open lines of communication and more inclusivity.

The unique landscape we’re all navigating in 2020 also lends itself well to peer mentorships. Everyone is spending more time online, and blogs or social media groups are great places to connect and learn from one’s peers in their respective fields.

The study’s authors focused on mentor-mentee relationships within the academic medicine field for this project. So, while its findings are most relevant in reference to academic medicine, its broader conclusions can be applied to any number of hobbies, professions, and fields.

Researchers analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of various “mentorship models.” Such models included traditional mentorship, ad-hoc relationships, grant-based training, and social media groups. This investigation led to the conclusion that peer mentorships rank among the best in terms of setting up future success, even among underrepresented groups.

The team at UC says they’ve even reaped the benefits of peer mentorships themselves, via their peer mentoring group on the Anschutz campus.

“We started our group because we felt that, as women in academic medicine, we really needed to support each other,” says lead study author Melanie Cree-Green, associate professor of pediatrics-endocrinology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in a press release.

“Our group of eight women formed three years ago and meets every three weeks. In that time, we have had five promotions, major grant funding – and other positive career milestones that happened thanks in part to our support for one another,” adds study co-author Jill Kaar, associate professor of pediatrics-endocrinology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Now, in the case of online mentorship groups, researchers say it’s important that some rules be put in place. There should be guidelines that guarantee discussions stay on track and disagreements be kept to a minimum.

“There are ground rules: consistency in meeting, everything stays in confidence, accountability,” Professor Kaar notes.

The flexibility of peer mentorship relationships has proven invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Cree-Green says.

“The peer mentorship during the pandemic has been amazing,” she explains. “A physician Facebook group that I belong to with a few thousand others in the U.S. has been 2-5 weeks ahead of what’s in the news re COVID-related topics – sharing instructions on how to print ventilator splitters, heparin dosing, ventilator settings. Those groups just started booming, and they absolutely made a huge difference to patient care.”

The idea of a “peer mentorship” may sound contradictory to the classic notion of a mentor at first consideration, but the world is changing quickly nowadays. Perhaps mentorship in the future will be synonymous with support and the free exchange of ideas more than anything else.

“Peer mentorship is a very different kind of mentoring than we’re traditionally taught,” Professor Cree-Green concludes. “It can be very effective to communicate with and understand your peers, and we want to encourage people to form their own mentor groups, especially as things are changing so rapidly. It’s not a new concept, but it’s an underutilized one.”

The full study can be found here, published in The Journal of Investigative Medicine.