New study shows important pathway to mentor commitment


Gettings, P.E. & Wilson, S.R. (2014). Examining commitment and relational maintenance in formal youth mentoring relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1-27, DOI: 10.1177/0265407514522145.

summarized by Stella Kanchewa, M.A., UMass Boston doctoral student.  

Background: Previous studies (e.g., Grossman et al. 2012; Grossman & Rhodes, 2002) have established the formation of an enduring relationship as one of the key ingredients of mentoring. Recent studies have focused on what relational factors influence whether the relationship endures long enough for subsequent positive outcomes to unfold. Using an investment model framework, this study explores how mentoring relationships form and persist, particularly focusing on factors that can predict mentors’ commitment to the relationship, and how mentors exhibit and communicate this commitment within the relationship.

Method: The study included 145 mentors from four mentoring programs with a range of structures (e.g., school-based, community-based). On average, mentors were about 30 years old and had been in a relationship with their mentees for about 18 months (matches ranged from 1 month to 9 years in duration).

Mentors completed surveys with the following measures, most of which were adapted from investment model in order to better fit distinct features of youth mentoring relationships:

  • Commitment: defined as “an individual’s intention to sustain and remain psychologically attached to a relationship”, and measured with statements such as “I want our relationship to last as long as possible.”
    • Satisfaction: positive or negative feelings about the relationship based on mentors’ sense of the benefits derived from the relationship (e.g., “my mentoring relationship makes me happy”).
    • Quality of alternatives: assessment of alternative relationships or options (e.g., a match with another mentee, participation in a different volunteer activity).
    • Investment: defined as “resources that individuals gain from being in a relationship that would be lost if the relationship ended”, measured with statements such as “compared to other mentors I know, I have invested a great deal in my relationship with my mentee.”
    • Relational maintenance strategies: Mentors’ efforts to maintain the relationship, even through challenges.
      • Assurance current: “the kind of things a mentor can say or do that let the mentee know how he/she currently feels about his/her mentoring relationship.”
      • Positivity and conflict management: “the ways that mentors can cultivate an upbeat, healthy relationship with a mentee.”
      • Social networks: A match’s common/shared social affiliations (e.g., with program staff, etc.).
      • Advice:  Ways mentors assist mentees with problem-solving and decision-making.
      • Assurance future: mentor’s consideration of the future of the relationship.
      • Stay/leave behavior: Measured 7 months after the first survey, assessing the status of the mentoring relationship (e.g., whether mentors were still meeting with their mentees, if so how frequently they met).

Results: Generally, mentors reported being highly satisfied and committed, and moderately invested in their relationships with low levels of perceived alternatives. In addition, above and beyond the influence of mentor’s age, education and the length of the relationship, the following was found:

  • Mentors reported greater commitment in relationships that were more satisfying, in which they had made greater investments and perceived fewer alternatives.
  • Among the three, investment in the relationship was the strongest predictor of commitment.
  • Mentors with greater commitment assured their mentees about both the current and future state of their relationship, and maintained positivity (e.g., optimism, use of conflict management skills) within the relationship.
  • The association between mentors’ investment in the relationship and subsequent use of interpersonal strategies to maintain the relationship was fully (conflict management/positivity) and partially (assurance current and future) explained by their level of commitment.
  • The association between mentors’ satisfaction with the relationship and subsequent use of relational strategies to maintain the relationship was fully (assurance future) and partially (positivity/conflict management) explained by their level of commitment.
  • The association between mentors’ perceived alternatives and subsequent use of relational strategies to maintain the relationship was fully (positivity/conflict management and assurance future) explained by their level of commitment.
  • Mentors’ commitment and use of relationship maintenance strategies significantly predicted whether mentors choose to stay in or leave the relationship with their mentee, while the length of the relationship was not a significant predictor.

Conclusions and Implications: In this study, mentors’ sense of investment in the relationship with their mentee was the strongest predictor of commitment. Commitment in turn explained the association between mentors’ investment, satisfaction and perceived alternatives, and relational efforts to maintain the relationship with their mentee. In addition, commitment also predicted whether the relationship endured or terminated. This suggests that investment (e.g., time, energy, resources) and commitment are key ingredients in mentoring relationship endurance and maintenance.

The study’s findings, if replicated, have implications for youth mentoring, specifically the importance of a mentor’s commitment to the match. Beyond committing to program stipulated minimum time obligation (e.g., one year), programs can assess the manner in which a mentor conveys and communicates his/her commitment within the match. Knowing and being assured of their mentor’s commitment to the relationship through maintenance behaviors may be particularly important for youth who have experienced past relational challenges (e.g., interrupted relationships, separation, rejection, etc.).  The authors note, “A mentor’s ability to communicate her commitment to the mentee and/or the mentoring relationship by enacting maintenance behaviors may distinguish high-quality relationships from others.” Programs could support mentors who might struggle with this type of communication, and also provide more opportunities for both mentors and mentees to acknowledge and express the importance of the relationship.

A question that remains is how do programs foster and support investment, which seems to be important for long-term commitment? The authors pose, “…what are relational and/or programmatic elements that foster a deep sense of investment for mentors?” For instance, it might be that emphasizing and supporting deep-level similarities such as interests, particularly in the initial phases of a relationship, may foster a sense of closeness that encourages both individuals to invest in the relationship. Future research can further extend the findings from this study and contribute to our understanding of factors that foster investment and other interpersonal processes in mentoring relationships.