How program staff influence mentor-mentee relationship quality

Keller, T. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2021). Influence of program staff on quality of relationships in a community-based youth mentoring program. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1483(1), 112–126.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although staff play influential roles in the quality of mentoring relationships and mentoring programming, not many studies pay attention to their roles. 
  • This study examines how Big Brothers Big Sisters program staff affected mentoring relationships over the course of 15 months. 
  • Findings indicate that staff engagement, compliance to program guidelines, and staff competencies rated by supervisors correlate with more satisfactory mentoring relationships. 
    • Non-directive approaches, on the other hand, were correlated with less satisfactory mentoring relationships.
  • It’s important for programs to utilize initiatives and establish expectations in order to promote staff engagement, effective supervision approaches, and overall staff performance.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

In many mentoring programs, mentor–youth pairs have the latitude to engage in a wide range of activities together across varying community settings. Within this context, program staff are tasked with supporting development of high‐quality relationships between mentors and youth. To date, however, this role of program staff has been largely overlooked in research. The current study investigates potential contributions of program staff to mentoring relationships in the Big Brothers Big Sisters community‐based mentoring program over their first 15 months of relationship development with a sample of 450 mentor–youth pairs that were supported by 76 program staff across 10 agencies. Two‐level analyses (mentoring relationships nested within program staff) examined characteristics and approaches of program staff as prospective predictors of several facets of mentoring relationship quality as reported by youth: closeness, help with coping, youth‐centeredness, growth orientation, and attachment. Staff‐reported work engagement and emphasis on adherence to program guidelines as well as supervisor‐rated staff competence predicted more favorable mentoring relationship quality. By contrast, a nondirective approach to supporting mentors, as reported by staff, predicted lower relationship quality. These findings suggest that further investigation of program staff influences on mentoring relationship development could be fruitful and ultimately provide a basis for enhancing program effectiveness.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The findings of this longitudinal, multilevel, multi‐informant study are consistent with the premise that staff in CBM programs responsible for overseeing mentoring relationships can influence their quality as experienced by youth mentees. Staff‐level factors assessed by supervisors and self‐report of staff at baseline were associated with multiple indicators of relationship quality reported by the mentees under their oversight 15 months after they had begun relationships with their mentors. Specifically, analyses revealed that variability in relationship quality reported by the mentees overseen by different staff members was partially explained by reports of those staff members regarding both their level of work engagement and their approaches to match support as well as by prior ratings of supervisors regarding their competence. These findings are particularly noteworthy considering that program‐level differences were controlled, as were individual‐level factors assessed at baseline, including mentor and mentee demographics, mentee behavior and emotional issues, and mentor experience and perceived self‐efficacy. In fact, staff‐level factors were more frequently and consistently associated with mentee‐reported relationship quality than the individual‐level mentor and mentee variables examined.

The current findings are in line with previous research suggesting that the program support provided by staff contributes to satisfaction with and continuation of mentoring relationships.3840 However, prior investigations have focused mainly on the experiences of mentors, relied on the perceptions of program participants regarding the nature or extent of staff support provided, and assessed these impressions at the same time as ratings of relationship quality. Interpretations of the associations reported in these studies are somewhat tentative owing to a variety of considerations, including the potential for mentors pleased with their mentoring relationships to hold more positive opinions regarding staff for this reason. The current research extends this literature both by focusing on the experiences reported by youth participating in mentoring relationships and by demonstrating with a robust study design that these experiences are predicted by staff characteristics measured prior to the creation of the mentoring relationships.

Despite recognition that program staff must play a part in the development of formal mentoring relationships by virtue of implementing basic program practices,6,31,41 the current study is among the first to investigate what staff members bring to the equation as individuals who inhabit the staff role. The dimensions hypothesized to be important included level of education, perceived self‐efficacy in the role, level of work engagement, style of match support, and quality of work performance as judged by a supervisor. Program staff education, perceived self‐efficacy, and reported level of emphasis on providing guidance to mentors were not predictive of mentoring relationship quality reported by mentees. However, work engagement, two other facets of mentor support style, and work performance were predictors of multiple mentoring relationship outcomes. In fact, across four of the five measures of mentoring relationship quality, at least two of these staff‐level factors were statistically significant predictors (at P < 0.05), while others were predictors at marginally significant levels (P < 0.10).

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