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  • Joel P. Berman

People Like Their Mentors to Be Cheerleaders. That May Be a Mistake.

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

By studying how contestants on “The Voice” chose mentors, researchers found expertise isn’t the driving factor.

By Cheryl Winokur Munk (The Wall Street Journal)

If you’re looking for a mentor, don’t let kind words be music to your ears.

Recent studies suggest that people tend to favor advisers who are positive, cheerleader-types over tough talkers and voices of experience. But such preferences, the researchers also say, often lead to detrimental results, a finding with wide-ranging implications for companies and managers.

A paper published in March in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General summarized the findings of six connected studies. Subjects of inquiry included: what characteristics people predict they will use when selecting an adviser; those people’s actual adviser selections; and the potential consequences of these decisions.

The results were clear: People in the studies chose positivity over expertise—even though that wasn’t their stated intention at the start. Some of the research examined how contestants in the reality-TV singing competition “The Voice” chose their advisers. Contestants on the show are asked to select a singing coach who will then offer them feedback on their singing and other advice in hopes of winning the competition.

When the contestants were asked to predict how they would select an adviser, they generally said they would choose a coach based on expertise. However, they tended to choose those coaches who acted more positively toward them than the other coaches. Expertise, it seems, played second fiddle.

Moreover, when that outcome was tested beyond the context of “The Voice,” the same patterns emerged—people claimed to predominantly value expertise, but in practice, they largely based their decisions on positive vibes.

And when researchers looked at the outcomes of these decisions, they noted a disturbing pattern. Those who relied primarily on cheerleader-types generally underperformed those who were guided more by expertise.

Catherine Shea, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business who focuses on organizational behavior and theory, says that choosing an experienced mentor who may be rough around the edges can be like taking cough medicine.

“It tastes awful, but it works,” she says. “Sometimes you really do need the skill set, and sometimes the nice person is not going to give it to you.” Prof. Shea is a co-author of the March paper and a fellow researcher in the six studies cited, along with Julia Hur, assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU Shanghai, and Rachel Ruttan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Companies can also find lessons in these findings, in terms of hiring practices, personnel development and overall growth, Prof. Shea says. For instance, people, by following their hearts instead of their powers of reason, can make poor hiring decisions.

Far too often, hiring decisions are based on factors such as personality and whether a candidate is likable, says Prof. Shea. Choices based on such factors can affect a company’s productivity and success, she says.

Rather than rely on feelings, Prof. Shea says, companies need to focus more on a reasoned analysis of a candidate’s expertise and ability. “Companies can help mitigate the effects of in-the-moment, poor decision making by creating clear job criteria and sticking to those choices,” she adds.

“Whether it be for hiring, staffing a team, determining promotions and, in the current climate, determining furloughs, criteria are needed to ensure that we keep the expertise we need, even if that’s at the expense of losing someone we like,” Prof. Shea says. “It’s astonishing how many organizations do not specify criteria for important decisions, and thus get swayed in the moment by things like positivity.”

The studies’ findings don’t imply that some positivity isn’t a good thing in the workplace. Indeed, another takeaway for managers is that it helps to sprinkle positivity in their interactions with job candidates so that the opportunity appeals to prospective employees personally, as well professionally.

“We found simple statements like ‘I’m excited to work with you’ to be very predictive” of how people choose to work with an adviser. “This is something that we often discount and think of as irrelevant,” Prof. Shea says.

Adam Grant, the Saul P. Steinberg professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, derives another lesson from the research: The ability to express criticism openly and honestly can make teams stronger and more productive. “We miss out on opportunities for learning and growth because we’re surrounded by too many cheerleaders and too few constructive critics,” Prof. Grant says.


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