What is the mentoring paradox? New study has answers!

Ziegler, A., Gryc, K. L., Hopp, M. D. S., & Stoeger, H. (2021). Spaces of possibilities: A theoretical analysis of mentoring from a regulatory perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1483(1), 174–198. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14419

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Despite the ongoing research on mentoring relationships, the mentoring paradox is still salient.
    • While there is evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of mentoring, many meta-analyses only display small or moderate effect sizes.
  • This paper addresses several current problems with mentoring research, introduces several working definitions and theoretical premises, and proposes several concepts in order to address the mentoring paradox.
  • There are 3 major issues with mentoring scholarships:
    • 1. There is no solid, unifying definition of mentoring. 
    • 2. There are many ways mentoring programs are structured and implemented.
    • 3. Mentoring cannot be examined on its own. There are always other measures and variables that affect it. 
  • This paper’s working definition of mentoring is “Mentoring refers to all activities of persons in their roles as mentors”.
  • Proposes that having mentees’ actiotopes and their association with other systems function as a unit of analysis and having regulations where mentors are responsible for overseeing activities to achieve a mentoring goal as categories of analysis will provide a systemic approach to address the mentoring paradox.
  • They introduce three concepts and framework for researchers to consider:
    • the nonagonal framework of regulation in mentoring (NFR‐M), which can systemize and expand on the various aspects of mentoring regulations.
    • M-spaces, which describe the “spaces” of possibilities there are in mentoring and provides a lively perspective on mentoring. 
    • Athena Mentor, which is an allegory that combines all the concepts described above in a way that will help resolve the mentoring paradox (i.e. help mentoring facilitators account for the full potential of mentoring while overseeing and participating in mentoring practices). 
  • There are many regulatory processes that occur within mentoring practices, where dynamic among all these processes are administered into mentees’ actiotopes and can be affected by outside consequences. The product of these complicated processes relies on minutia. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

A review of the literature on the effectiveness of mentoring reveals a paradox: on the one hand, there is evidence that mentoring can be highly effective. On the other hand, meta‐analyses usually only show small to moderate effect sizes, and sometimes even negative effects. To better understand this mentoring paradox, we discuss three fundamental problems in mentoring research. We propose working definitions and theoretical premises to overcome these problems. We apply various systemic concepts to the field of mentoring that might help to resolve the mentoring paradox. We introduce mentees’ actiotopes and their interaction with other systems as the unit of analysis, and the regulations for which mentors are responsible for in the context of mentoring as the categories of analysis. To systemize and elaborate on the regulatory dimensions of mentoring, we introduce the nonagonal framework of regulation in mentoring (NFR‐M). To facilitate the analysis of ongoing changes caused by mentoring and therefore a dynamic understanding of mentoring, we introduce the concept of spaces of possibilities in mentoring (M‐spaces). Finally, we introduce the concepts of the Athena Mentor to explain why mentors can differ so dramatically in the effectiveness of the regulations they are responsible for in the context of mentoring. We conclude by describing how mentoring comparisons based on the NFR‐M, mentors’ regulatory insight, regulatory power, and M‐spaces can help to resolve the mentoring paradox.

Implications (Reprinted from the Summary & conclusion)

In the context of this paper, the term “mentoring paradox” describes the surprising heterogeneity of effects and effect sizes of mentoring reported in the research literature. They range from negative effects to large effects that have been counted among the strongest effects observed among educational measures. In between these extremes, meta‐analyses usually find only small to moderate effect sizes. Despite research efforts to date, it has not yet been possible to solve the mentoring paradox.

In light of the divergent empirical findings expressed by the mentoring paradox, the current lack of a generally accepted theoretical framework for a comparative analysis of mentoring effectiveness qualifies as a critical shortcoming within the research on mentoring. Results from meta‐analyses and reviews typically refer to a comparison of outcomes, documenting how well different mentoring episodes achieve the same goals. Studies have also considered individual characteristics of mentoring that presumably influence the achievement of desired goals. Thus, the topic often is approached from a cause‐and‐effect perspective. We argue that a systemic approach to the subject59 might have various advantages in solving the mentoring paradox. In such an approach, mentoring is seen as a dynamic contextualized process, and analyses are primarily interested in the complex interplay of processes, wherein goal‐oriented mentor‐led regulations and synchronization explain mentoring success.

This article developed conceptual tools with which to analyze these complex processes within mentoring and thus offers a new approach to explaining the mentoring paradox. To this end, we first proposed essential working definitions. We introduced a working definition of mentoring. We do not advocate that our definition should replace existing definitions. On the contrary, as mentoring is not a “natural kind,”136 a plurality of definitions is acceptable and potentially helpful. The reason for introducing our working definitions was to create a basis of understanding for the types of conceptual systemic analyses we then proposed. We also introduced working definitions for the concepts of the mentoring episode and the mentoring pathway. These are useful for analyzing situational, temporal, and dynamic aspects of mentoring. As a unit of analysis, we suggested mentees’ actiotopes and their interaction with other systems. As categories of analysis, we suggested regulations of which mentors are responsible in the context of mentoring, that is, mentors’ monitoring and control activities in pursuit of a mentoring goal. We elaborated on these regulations in the NFR‐M. The actiotope as unit of analysis and the regulations specified in the NFR‐M enable a holistic approach to mentoring. Our introduction of spaces of possibilities in mentoring (M‐spaces) enables a dynamic view of mentoring that together with the holistic approach is essential for analyzing mentoring and its success from a systemic perspective.

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