Cross-cultural mentoring relationships: Breaking the formal mentoring script towards stronger relationships

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About the author:
Jelena Zikic is Associate Professor at University of York, Canada. You can contact her at

While mentoring relationships are one important avenue for professional learning and exchange, not all mentoring relationships are equally successful. Less talked about, yet equally important, in today’ economy are cross-cultural mentoring relationships, which in addition to usual intricacies of any mentoring connection also bring additional complexity, that of differing cultural frames that mark this exchange. These relationships are more and more common as organizations and individuals easily cross geographical boundaries in search of new markets and career opportunities.

In my recent work involving 50 formal cross-cultural mentoring dyads in Canada (total of 100 in depth interviews) — local professionals who’d been paired with immigrant professional job-seekers—I found three key relational pathways that seemed to predict whether cross-cultural mentoring relationships will lead to high quality relationships.

Breaking the Boundaries of Formal Mentoring towards Holistic Exchange

Many formal mentoring programs come with a set of suggested guidelines that mentoring partners may be asked to consider. However, our findings show that in this “meeting of strangers” where mentors and proteges are matched by a third party (i.e., formal mentoring), the best formal mentoring relationships did quite the opposite. First and foremost, successful formal mentoring relationships in this study worked at lowering the initial uncertainty when meeting someone new, especially someone coming from another culture. This entails partners’ willingness to openly share their previous career journey and any relevant experiences early on in the formal mentoring relationship. Just as important is acknowledging work-life connections as you share your story. Moreover, when meeting a mentor or a protégé that not only is a ‘stranger’ but someone who comes from another cultural background, being sensitive to different communication norms was especially important in improving the quality of these relationships. Along the same lines, while some of us may view mentoring as strictly professional exchange, others (as was the case in some cross-cultural dyads), may also seek out a friendship and engage in sharing beyond work in the context of the mentoring relationship. Thus, approaching a new mentoring relationship in a more holistic fashion while being sensitive and open to work and non-work conversations are some of the key characteristics of successful cross-cultural mentoring, leading to deeper connection and more trust.

Promote Reciprocal Cultural Exchange

We typically think of a mentor as someone in a more senior or leadership role for example, while the protégé would be a more junior employee wishing to advance their career in the given organization. This traditional type of structure often creates certain power dynamics and possibly even barriers. In the case of the cross-cultural relationships I studied where the protégé is unemployed professionals and the mentor may be seen as the “local guru”, this power dynamics can be even more pronounced. Yet, our findings based on 100 individuals in a formal mentoring program in Canada show the opposite. Namely, the strongest relationships were those that fostered mutual exchange, no matter the rank/status in the organization. The greatest amount of learning and strongest relationships were those where mentoring partners took turns in terms of knowledge exchange and there was clear reciprocity (i.e., partners responded to the needs of each other) and learning occurred on both sides. Specifically, in cross-cultural dyads this exchange often centered on cross-cultural issues, and mutual cultural disclosure. Both members of the dyad needed to feel comfortable to compare and contrast cultural norms at work and beyond. In this way the mentor learned from the protégé’s cross-cultural experiences and reciprocated by sharing his or her understanding of the local cultural norms. As a result, mentors reported improved cross-cultural communication and coaching skills as well as having more in depth understanding of diversity issues and how one may address them in day-to-day multicultural interactions at work. Thus, formal cross-cultural mentoring programs should foster the idea that both partners are equal contributors and only when sharing and learning is reciprocal can these relationships grow into more positive and long-lasting relationships. 

Going beyond the script towards idiosyncratic solutions

Formal mentoring programs typically introduce participants to the key goals and the focus of their meetings prior to the start; when dealing with cross-cultural dyads, and especially in the case of the unemployed protégé, it may not all work out as prescribed. Namely, my study shows that when mentors and proteges engaged in authentic exchange whereby both partners were aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, sometimes the best solutions were unique to that context rather than those initially imagined or suggested by the program manual. Thus, while the formal mentoring program for example may rightly suggest focusing on the resume crafting and mock interviews, sometimes, dyads realized that what the protégé needed the most was a job shadowing opportunity, or simply a way of increasing his/her job search or language confidence for example. Thus, when dyads were able to openly share what each partner needed or could provide in this mentoring exchange, the strongest relationships were those that sought to find creative solutions and offered unique assistance responding to idiosyncratic needs of the situation.


Zikic, J. What happens when your mentor across cultures? Key note presented at EAWOP meeting in Glasgow, Jan. 2019.

Zikic, J. Uncertainty Reduction in Cross-Cultural Mentoring Relationships. Paper presented at the annual Academy of Management Meeting, Chicago, 2018.

Zikic, J. & Ehrhardt, K. Starting as Strangers: Pathways for Building Quality in Formal Mentoring Relationships through Uncertainty Reduction. Paper presented at the annual EGOS Colloquium, Copenhagen, 2017.

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