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Use Sponsorship And Mentorship To Mitigate Burnout, Improve Connection And Increase Representation


Certified diversity executive, host of Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox podcast and Head of Content for The Diversity Movement.

Of the many lessons we learned in 2020 and 2021, one that’s most pertinent to improving the workplace is the utmost importance of human connection. The modern workforce is tired and lonely, still coping with the pandemic and the shifting nature of modern work. In fact, a spring 2021 study by Indeed found that 52% of respondents reported feeling burned out, with 67% saying the feeling had worsened throughout the pandemic. 

Exhaustion, disengagement and loneliness are intimately connected. As Emma Seppälä and Marissa King wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2017, “The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel. This loneliness is not a result of social isolation, as you might think, but rather is due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout.” Loneliness leads to exhaustion and exhaustion to disengagement. 

For employees from traditionally marginalized or underrepresented groups, loneliness is especially prevalent, exhaustion and burnout are even more common and isolation sometimes feels like an inevitable part of corporate life. When you are one of only a few people of color, the only person with a visible disability or the only woman at the leadership table, you’re also more likely to experience discrimination, subtle exclusion and microaggressions. 

Cultivating Human Connections Improves Bottom-Line Results

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Human connection is essential to your employees’ health and productivity—but also to your organization’s sustainability and long-term success. Mentorship and sponsorship offer critical pathways to connection. They’re also great tools for improving corporate culture and business outcomes through best practices for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), even in organizations where people already feel connected and supported.

Mentorship and sponsorship lay the groundwork for increased connectivity in the workplace while helping people fulfill their potential. But in order to understand how best to carry out these tactics, we must first understand the differences between them.

How Mentorship And Sponsorship Differ

Mentors are role models at various experience levels who facilitate professional growth by providing direct one-on-one guidance via coaching, feedback, connections and advice. Mentorship might help clarify an employee’s goals and outline a path forward.

Sponsors, in contrast, are specific senior-level leaders who agree to use their influence to build opportunities and drive careers forward, such as by advocating for promotion, sharing job opportunities, making introductions and nominating their proteges for programs. Sponsorship can mean the difference between a high-performing employee being overlooked versus advancing in their career and making a major impact within their organization.

The Benefits Of Each

Both mentorship and sponsorship contribute to employee retention by preventing people from feeling their potential is being squandered. They broaden the perspectives of everyone involved while bolstering engagement, confidence, well-being, skill development, networking and belonging. Furthermore, both mentorship and sponsorship can help people of different backgrounds connect and cultivate strong relationships, building a more inclusive atmosphere.

Sponsorship, in particular, also boosts visibility, representation, morale and business growth. Executive sponsors get not only a sense of fulfillment but also the knowledge they have contributed firsthand to individual and organizational success. And often, their sponsored employees offer valuable insight into the real daily culture, challenges and opportunities in their organizations, thereby working as reverse mentors. 

Where sponsorship is focused specifically on professional development and career advancement, mentorship can be a more helpful tool for nurturing feelings of belonging and inclusion. Mentors are especially helpful in learning how to navigate workplaces where dimensions of one’s identity are currently or typically underrepresented. A new, nonbinary Gen-Z employee, for instance, may benefit greatly from a voluntary mentor who identifies as LGBTQ+, so long as the two are mutually invested in the relationship.

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Providing Support For Future Leaders

In the workplace, research shows that while 80% of white employees view themselves as allies, women of color still say they lack strong allies in the workplace. Over time, lack of support leads to continued lack of representation in leadership. According to neuroscientist Vivienne Ming, lack of representation in leadership also creates a “tax on being different”—a problem that sponsorship and mentorship can help solve. 

In fact, one recent study showed that representation of African American, Hispanic and Asian people at the management level was most improved by mentorship as opposed to voluntary training, self-managed teams, cross-training, college recruitment, diversity managers and task forces. In this study, mentorship alone boosted representation at the managerial level by 9% to 24%.

Sponsorship leads to greater senior-level diversity by ensuring that those who tend to be overlooked are not only recognized for their talents but also given appropriate opportunities for success. Sponsors can help spotlight their protege’s accomplishments, connect the protege with their personal circle and add credibility to a candidate, thereby offsetting the potentially detrimental impacts of unconscious or overt bias.

In sum, both mentorship and sponsorship allow people to pay their privilege and success forward, passing along lessons they’ve learned and leveraging their resources to advance the good of their proteges, organizations and humanity. Your organization may already strive to build allyship, but mentorship and sponsorship go beyond allyship to galvanize and systematize DEI change, ensuring those who might otherwise slip through organizational cracks are supported, guided and elevated into roles that challenge them to grow and reach their full potential. Along the way, these initiatives also reduce feelings of loneliness, disengagement and burnout, making work more enjoyable for everyone. 


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