What a wildly improbable movie can teach us about mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

In the comedy, Role Models, two self-absorbed salesmen, Danny and Wheeler, are arrested following a road rage incident and elect to perform community service hours over going to jail. They are assigned to work at a mentoring program where Danny is paired with a nerdy role-playing game enthusiast while Wheeler finds himself trying to connect with foul-mouthed, street-wise kid who has repelled the overtures of countless previous mentors. Forging connections with the mentees is anything but easy and, at a particularly low point, both men reconsider the jail sentence over this particular form of punishment. Over time, however, Danny is drawn into the world of his mentee’s fantasy games, supporting his interests in ways that the teen’s parents never would or could. Wheeler connects with his mentee over their shared, painful experiences of parental abandonment and eventually Wheeler leverages this trust into teaching his mentee valuable self-regulation skills. Both Danny and Wheeler gain wisdom and empathy along the way and their lives improve.

Although improbable, threads of this movie align with the latest research on relationships and, in doing so, capture several important truths about what makes mentoring work. Strip away the implausibility of sentencing criminals to mentoring, and strip away their crudeness and shockingly poor judgment, and some of the active ingredient of mentoring relationships is revealed—a positive connection. The secrets to forging strong ties were recently illuminated in the book, Friend and Foe, by Business Professors Adam Galinsky and  Maurice Schweitzer of Columbia and University of Pennsylvania, respectively. In it, they provide sometimes counter-intuitive, but evidence-based strategies for handling the everyday relationship tensions and difficulties. Certain suggestions (e.g., screw up to gain trust) seem especially relevant to working with teens. Sometimes sharing a good laugh with your mentee at your own expense is a great way to make yourself seem more approachable. With the caveat that the Role Model mentors would be entirely inappropriate, here are six things that, according to research, they get right:

  1. Make mistakes  All too often, mentors try to be perfect role models when, in fact, their mentees are likely to be more responsive to them if they make (and admit) mistakes in ways that humanize them. In one study, people were asked to evaluate three job candidates. Two equally competent candidates were interviewed but, as part of the experiment, one spilled coffee all over his suit during the interview. A third candidate was less competent. The researchers found that the competent but clumsy candidate was most highly regarded  He seemed most approachable and more likable. Bottom line: mentors (parents, bosses, advisors, etc.) should stop worrying about being perfect. As long as they are trained and competent, it’s okay, perhaps even preferable, to mess up from time to time.
  2. Convey care and concern The researchers describe one study in which a confederate approached people on a rainy day at a train station to ask if she could borrow their cell phone to make an important call. Sometimes she simply asked while in other instances she preceded the request with “Sorry about the rain.”  Only 9% agreed to help her out when she simply asked for the phone but nearly half agreed to help when the request was accompanied by the apology as it somehow conveyed warmth, trust, care and concern. As the authors note, “Regardless of how superfluous the apology was, as long as it conveyed care and concern, it boosted perceptions of warmth and increased trust.”Other studies have shown similar requests–i.e., when an interruption is preceded by asking if it’s a good time to talk, people are more responsive. Small gestures of concern and care can go a long way.
  3. Connect around the mentee’s interest In Role Models, Danny went out of his way to learn about his mentees interests in role playing, and once he got it, proceeded to go deep into the experience himself. This sort of perspective taking can go a long way in helping mentors understand what their mentee is experiencing and finding ways to draw on interests to leverage positive change.
  4. Ask  for advice Researchers have long shown that the simple act of asking someone for advice can help them to better see your perspective. Moreover, people think more of you when you ask their advice. As the authors describe, “people fear that by asking advice, they will appear less competent. But this is a perspective-taking failure: When we ask for advice, as long as the request is not completely obvious, we appear to be more competent. After all, we have just flattered someone by seeking their advice.” This strategy can be particularly useful in hierarchical relationships like mentoring. As the authors note, “asking advice of someone below you on the hierarchical ladder — like when the boss asks a subordinate for their opinion — can have a powerful effect as well. The person below you in the hierarchy will be delighted to be acknowledged for their opinions and thrilled to have their expertise acknowledged.”
  5. Apologize the right way-Even with the best intentions, a mentor might do all sorts of things (miss a meeting, be distracted on their iPhone, or say something hurtful). But, beyond just a simple apology, it is sometimes best to commit to changing in a way that better ensures that it won’t happen again,  “In our own research, we have found that a promise to change is one of the most important components of an apology… Though the simple apology helped, it was the promise to change that had the most impact on how much trust their partner placed in them in subsequent rounds of the experiment.” Of course, such apologies are never easy,  and research suggests that apologies can make one feel a loss of power in the relationship. But as the researchers would argue, it’s best to focus instead what is achieved through apology, “As soon as you start to feel defensive or begin to rationalize some action that might have caused harm, take a moment of reflection. Take a step back and consider what an apology might accomplish. Even when we are justified in our actions and even when we acted with the best of intentions, there are times when an apology is the right course of action.”
  6. Have fun We have new research (under review) to support this and drawing on current research, online evidence-based mentor training Mentoring Central has an entire segment devoted to the importance of having fun together. Moreover, research on child therapy has highlighted the importance of humor and laughter for creating a non-threatening climate that is conducive to disclosures and more serious discussions. The comfort, familiarity, and closeness that humor conveys may be important to youth in feeling engaged and understood by key adults. Of course, humor in mentoring involves finesse. Adults must maintain boundaries and avoid misinterpretation, sarcasm or inappropriate jokes. But, with mounting research showing the benefits of age appropriate humor, fun and laughter in forging close relationships, this and other critical components should not be ignored.