There is a growing consensus that inclusive work environments yield better results. When employees feel included, they are more engaged and perform better. Organizations that are moving the needle on inclusion know that it is important to create a shared understanding of inclusive behaviors, of the benefits of having a diverse workforce, and of the link between inclusion and their organization’s mission and vision.

Training programs and leaders who model inclusive behaviors are essential to creating inclusive work environments, but they alone are not sufficient. When employees have meaningful workplace relationships with people who are different from them, organizations will become more inclusive. These relationships are where mentoring comes in.

A Mentoring Culture Drives Inclusion

Diverse teams outperform monocultural teams in the workplace when those individual differences are valued and leveraged. When differences are ignored, organizations miss the benefits of diversity.

A mentoring culture is a culture that nurtures deeper working relationships and values the development of all employees. When employees have a place where they can focus on their own development, take risks, explore possibilities, gain exposure to senior leaders who get to know them, and understand that differences are not just seen but also valued, they can feel understood and appreciated and know that they are an integral part of the organization.

An Effective Mentoring Initiative Can Build Equity

An inclusive workplace cannot exist without equity, which means that all individuals have equal access to opportunities. Why is this so important? In his book “Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Game Revealed,” Harvey Coleman notes that there are three factors that comprise success in the workplace: performance, image and exposure. In a perfect world, our job performance would account for all of our career success, but even for people whose performance is exceptional, their on-the-job performance accounts for only 10% of their career success. The other 90% of success is attributed to image, or the impression an organization or individual has about their ability to succeed (30%), and exposure, or access to opportunities (60%).

Unlike supervisory relationships that focus on the employee’s performance, mentoring relationships focus on that other 90% of success. While a mentor can provide some developmental guidance on a mentee’s performance, the true benefits of mentoring come when mentoring pairs focus on image and exposure. Mentors can be a mirror to mentees by providing feedback on how the mentee is perceived and by exploring ways the mentee can show up authentically and favorably.

Mentors can increase exposure by presenting new possibilities, opening doors, and introducing mentees to people and opportunities. They can help mentees show up authentically and favorably, because they provide a safe space to provide feedback and a safety net.

Just knowing there is someone in the organization who understands and values them for who they are can help improve mentees’ performance and create a willingness to contribute to their fullest.

Mentoring Helps Develop Cultural Competency

Cultural competency is the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own. An organization cannot be inclusive without a culturally competent leadership team and workforce.

Cultural competency requires exposure to people who are different from us in a meaningful way. When we become culturally competent, we stop judging differences as good or bad or as better or worse. Instead, we learn about those differences and how they impact others’ perspectives, motivations and worldviews.

Mentoring helps build cultural competency by creating familiarity and understanding, which may help bridge differences. For example, a mentor might be surprised to learn that her mentee has a different view of authority, is motivated by something entirely different than she is or has a different threshold of tolerance for ambiguity. If the mentor had learned about these differences in the absence of a personal connection, she might be more likely to judge or dismiss them. Through her relationship with her mentee, she can begin to understand these differences and see how they might be significant for him and for others.

Cultural competency cannot be built in a classroom. It grows in trusting relationships where each person can show up authentically. It is developed by creating safe spaces like in a mentoring relationship, where both parties can share their insights and struggles. The skills and awareness that are built in these relationships transfer throughout the organization, helping mentors and mentees better deal with differences among their co-workers.

Here are five ways to make sure that your mentoring relationships produce these benefits:

1. Train Your Mentors

Mentoring is a skill and a leadership competency. Good leaders do not necessarily know how to mentor. If you want to make sure that your mentors create a safe space to explore and understand differences, you have to make sure they learn and practice good mentoring skills.

2. Protect Mentoring Time

Many mentoring initiatives go awry when mentees’ supervisors schedule team meetings over mentoring meetings. Ensure that all managers understand the organization’s commitments to mentoring, and create the expectation that mentoring time is protected.

3. Create Accountability

Even the most successful mentoring pairs need support from their organizations. Check in regularly with mentors and mentees to make sure they are on track, and ask mentoring pairs to share their goals and their achievements along the way. Encourage mentoring pairs to set a structure for their relationship, including how often they will meet, where they will meet and over what period of time. To ensure that they are developing cultural competency, encourage mentoring partners to discuss diversity and explore the differences between the two of them. Check in to see what they have learned.

4. Focus on Building Trust

It takes time to build a trusting relationship. Encourage pairs to take the time to get to know one another and set up their relationship before diving into setting goals and creating action steps toward achieving them. Provide tools for trust-building exercises.

5. Measure Results

Your mentoring investment has a return, and you can measure it. To gauge results, measure improvements in promotion, retention and advancements statistics for women, people of color and members of other targeted underrepresented groups before and after a mentoring initiative. Don’t forget to gather qualitative data, too. Gather testimonials from your mentoring pairs, and celebrate achievements. Consider sending a self-assessment about cultural competency at the beginning of the relationship and again at the end to measure progress.

When done right, mentoring is an invaluable tool for creating more inclusive, equitable and culturally competent workplaces. By using mentorships to build leaders who model inclusion through transparency, trust and tangible feedback, you can create a workplace that fosters growth, engagement and loyalty.