So how does it work? Consciously and unconsciously, we learn from observing and listening to other people. Sometimes we learn not to be like them, but mostly we tend to absorb their ways of thinking and their behaviours. This happens whenever someone joins an established group or team and in learning relationships, such as in coaching and mentoring. The greater the disparity in authority or in experience between the two people, the more role modelling is likely to occur. Role modelling is very powerful, because it is an instinctive form of learning. The mirror neurons that lie at the heart of the process are core to our ability to socialise, to understand other people, and to work in groups.
Role modelling usually happens at a subconscious level – it is a largely passive process. However, in mentoring, making role modelling a considered, proactive process is important, because:
- It helps people absorb behaviours that are positive and beneficial, while rejecting those that aren’t
- It strengthens good behaviour (when someone sees their behaviours being emulated by another person, it stimulates their mirror neurons, too!)
- It helps people think about how they adapt other people’s perspectives and behaviours to fit their circumstances and their personality – so they use what they learn in a more authentic way
- It helps align individual behaviours and thinking patterns with corporate values.
So mentors can be more proactive role models by:
- Gaining a clear understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses – what someone else can usefully copy from you and what they shouldn’t!
- Recognising when their strengths become weaknesses from being over-used or used in the wrong places and being humble enough to share this with people you may influence
- Helping people, who may use them as a role model, to understand the context and impact, of using behaviours they might copy from them (for example, learning to be more assertive can be beneficial, but the behaviour needs to be modified in some situations to avoid being seen as aggressive.)
- Having conversations with people about how they can be selective and use judgement in what they use them as a role model for
Mentors can also support mentees to manage their own learning processes. People typically go through a five stage process of using someone else as a role model:
- Acceptive awareness: Identifying, sometimes from a distance, someone who appears to have qualities you would like to have
- Admiration: Getting to know this person better and comparing yourself to them; wanting to be like them
- Adaptation: Consciously or unconsciously adopting their perspectives, values and behaviours
- Advancement: Exerting your critical faculties to integrate their mental models with your own, rather than accepting them wholesale
- Astute awareness: Seeing the role model as a whole person, with frailties as well as strengths; becoming clear about what to accept from the role model and what to reject.
It’s common for children and young teenagers to move rapidly through a succession of role models, unconsciously repeating this cycle. As adults, we have greater capacity to exercise judgment all through this cycle, bringing ourselves to astute awareness much more quickly. Having open conversations about role modelling reinforces this.