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STAR WARS: (EPISODE V) THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). This 1980 publicity image originally released by Lucasfilm Ltd., Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and the character Yoda appear in this scene from "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back." (AP Photo/Lucasfilm Ltd)

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Kristina Makxam was working as a referee with the Oakville Soccer Club in Oakville, Ont., last year when she was offered an opportunity to develop her skills through a mentorship program. She had been mentored by a much older and more experienced soccer official in the past, but this time she was paired with a colleague with the same level of certification from a provincial association. This peer mentor offered written and verbal feedback about her refereeing of three matches.

“Working with a peer was less intimidating,” Makxam says. “I was more receptive to learning since it felt more like a two-way collaboration and less like an assessment, which can be nerve-wracking. Plus, it was just easier to communicate with someone I could relate to. I felt more comfortable asking questions, and my peer mentor explained things in a way I truly understood.”

New research highlights that peer mentorship offers benefits over a more traditional approach for both parties in the relationship. Pair a mentee with a mentor they can relate to and they’ll perform better—and be less likely to quit—than when working with a more experienced colleague. “There’s some resistance to having, for instance, young people teach other young people,” says Matthew Aslett, who studied mentorship among soccer referees, including Makxam, for his graduate work at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. “The thinking is often that you need the most senior or experienced person in the room driving the learning. But we’ve found that there’s a certain opportunity cost with that approach.”

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Peer mentorship eliminates the power differential inherent to traditional programs by pairing mentees with someone of similar age, status or tenure.

To explore this dynamic, Aslett, assisted by associate professor Matthias Spitzmuller, teamed 74 referees-in-training at the Oakville Soccer Club with either a traditional or a peer mentor (in this case, peership was determined by the individuals’ Ontario Soccer Association certification level). The mentors provided feedback before, during and after three games where their charges were officiating. Each time, the advice focused on a different area, such as game duties or communication. After each session, mentees completed surveys about their sense of social support, “voice behaviours” (how frequently they spoke up and shared recommendations to better the organization) and how likely they were to quit or look for another job. Mentors also filled out surveys about their mentees’ professionalism, communication and strength in the technical aspects of their role.

Mentees paired with their peers outperformed those in hierarchical relationships in all ways. They perceived having more social support, were less likely to consider quitting, spoke up more often and scored higher on their performance as referees.

In his own life, Aslett recalled being verbally abused by an older coach while officiating his first soccer game at 16. He wanted to quit. But a peer on a nearby field encouraged him, saying he’d had the same thing happen to him and was there to support Aslett. “Having a friendly, no-pressure sounding board was important at that moment,” he says. “If I went to a supervisor and said the game got out of control, I would be worried they’d think I was unqualified and wouldn’t give me any more assignments.”

The improved performance for peer mentees is likely partly driven by an enhanced feeling of security. “In traditional mentorship, there’s often not the psychological safety one needs to be honest about any issues or shortcomings,” says Spitzmuller, whose research focuses on team motivation and non-traditional leadership hierarchies. In an organizational context, he says, a junior employee may not share fears and limitations with a senior mentor if it might jeopardize their standing. “But if their mentor is of similar status, age or lived experience, they have more of an opportunity to be vulnerable and receive feedback precisely in the areas they need it most,” explains Spitzmuller.

Peer mentorship has also been shown to improve knowledge transfer within an organization. Tacit knowledge—think unwritten rules, like how to speak up in a meeting or phrase an email to a client or senior employee—flows more easily between peers, according to a study by Scott E. Bryant at Montana State University. This experience-based know-how is often difficult to acquire and tends to be taken for granted by those who hold it. Ensuring that tacit knowledge is made explicit to mentees seems to be a particular strength among mentors of similar standing. And research shows that people dramatically underestimate how willing others are to help them—a problem compounded by the possibility of reputational damage when power dynamics are at play. “We can reduce the reluctance to ask for help by assigning a peer mentor, where the perceived costs of reaching out are lower,” says Spitzmuller.

Research shows that mentors stand to gain much from guiding a peer, too. Michael Morrison, Makxam’s mentor, said the mentorship experience reignited his love of soccer and forced him to hone his communication skills. This translated to better relationships at work and home. In addition, the experience of feeling competent and providing helpful advice to others seems to boost confidence in mentors. A study on peer mentorship in nursing pointed to enhanced leadership skills in mentors; individuals in another study on engineering students had improved grades and retention rates.

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Freeing up the time of higher-tier executives, who need to mentor less often, is another potential benefit. Unlike their senior counterparts, peer mentors are more widely available within most organizations. The trick, of course, is making sure those teaching others know what they’re doing. “The challenge of peer mentorship is making sure the knowledge being passed on is of high quality, or you risk getting into a blind-leading-the-blind situation,” says Spitzmuller. Thus, hierarchical mentorship still has a role to play, the researchers suggest. In practice, this could look like a combination of both styles within an organization, with some fluidity between the roles. That is, the same person could be a mentor in one context and a mentee in another, amounting to scaffolded layers of peer and traditional mentorship pairs.

Spitzmuller’s four-year-old daughter attends a Montessori school, where children as young as five are responsible for teaching younger kids skills like placing boots in cubbies or putting on snow pants. Ever the researcher, Spitzmuller noticed how much smoother this type of learning seemed to go between children compared with when teachers are involved. “With our peers, there’s this willingness to learn from each other and grow together,” he says. “I think that’s consistent with our basic desires for autonomy and belongingness, which we know are powerful drivers of motivation.” Ultimately, peer mentorship is about harnessing social relationships to benefit an organization as a whole.

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