Cross cultural mentoring relationships offer unique opportunities to broaden perspectives and reduce unconscious biases. Here’s how they work.
Given the rapid changes in workforce demographics, understanding the potential challenges and opportunities created by a cross cultural mentoring relationship has become as critical as finding a compatible mentor.
The Blackwell Handbook of Mentoring defines cross cultural mentoring as “relationships where mentors and protégés differ on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, socio-economic class, or other group memberships.” Note the definition goes beyond race and ethnicity to include other social factors that shape mentors and mentees values, beliefs, and behaviors. This broader, more comprehensive way to define cross-cultural mentoring is the core factor to identify the challenges and opportunities this new scenario presents.
Why is this important? Gaining a clear understanding of the dynamics of cross cultural mentoring provides a layer of information that could enrich the development and launch of mentoring programs and proactively address potential blind spots.
Challenges of Cross Cultural Mentoring
Any type of mentoring relationship– from peer mentoring to a more formal set up (i.e. experienced and junior individuals)—will encounter the challenges of starting a new relationship. It takes time to develop and cultivate trust. Interactions between mentors and mentees are influenced by underlying biases, assumptions, and beliefs. When you add the element of culture to the mentoring experience, unforeseen challenges could emerge. Two challenges come to mind:
Biases and Assumptions. Research shows that every single individual has unconscious biases. The ability to be biased allows individuals to discern information and make decisions. Biases could jeopardize a cross cultural mentoring relationship when either mentor or mentee make wrong assumptions about each other because of their biases. For example, a mentee could assume that her mentor—because he is older—is less experienced and tech-savvy. A mentor could assume that her mentee is unfamiliar with American popular culture because she was born outside the U.S. Both circumstances could lead to condescending behaviors—also known as micro aggressions. Behaviors based on unfounded biases can take many forms. A senior leader in the financial services industry said when asked about her current mentee, “I don’t see her as Indian because she has no accent.”
- Differences in values, beliefs and expectations. Historically, mentoring programs have relied on matching pairs who are as similar as possible. The logic was that people who are alike (i.e. same race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) would have a higher degree of fit and compatibility. Once pairs are matched, the focus shifts to setting expectations and goals. A mentoring pair that is cross cultural would benefit from taking a step back and learning what expectations and goals look like to each other individually. For example, an expectation is to have an open door policy. The mentee, however, places a high value on formal authority and believes that rank trumps any other directive. Her expectation is that the mentor will initiate communication despite the open door expectation. This could lead to frustration and create an unnecessary distraction if not addressed proactively.
Opportunities of Cross Cultural Mentoring
Despite potential challenges presented by a cross cultural mentoring relationship, there are opportunities to consider:
- Perspective and mindset tune up. Engaging in a cross cultural mentoring relationship provides a rare opportunity to broaden perspectives and mindsets for both parties. The mentee—from the previous example–who identifies herself as Indian but has no accent could leverage that exchange to discuss with her mentor that the lack of accent does not determine her cultural affiliation. The mentor, in turn, has the opportunity to become aware of this bias of assigning an American identity to those with no accent.
- Innovation partnership. When two people with different backgrounds are invested in a mentoring program, the benefits of mutual mentoring become clear. What a better chance to brainstorm on new ideas than with a trusted thinking partner. Building on the trust cultivated through comparing and contrasting their beliefs and assumptions, mentors and mentees could strengthen their bond by directing their conversations to topics beyond career advancement and office politics. They could consult each other on business issues. Their different perspectives become a potential asset to fuel out-of-the box solutions.
Engaging in an effective cross cultural mentoring experience (HBR: Race Matters) goes beyond going out for mojitos or Thai food. Cross-cultural mentoring not only offers the opportunity to learn about others perspectives and expand your own. It also helps mentors and mentees become more agile in their thinking as decision makers and leaders.