Manager Mentorship Strategies: The Science of Motivating Young Talent with David Yeager

 We all want to be great managers. But when working with and leading young people, there’s no clear strategy or playbook for success. Too often it feels like we’re deciding between two extremes: enforce high standards and risk pushing our mentees away, or take a more gentle approach and withhold criticism, therefore missing out on critical learning moments. Often the result can be intergenerational misunderstanding.

How do we interact with young people so that they feel inspired, enthusiastic, and energized rather than disengaged, outraged, or overwhelmed?

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, we speak with David Yeager, author of 10 to 25: The Science of Motivating Young People. He shares his research on mentoring young people ages 10 to 25—how to cultivate a mentor mindset, the science and research on mentoring young people, applying a growth mindset to cultivate young talent, and key tools and strategies to employ for better mentorship.


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What Makes a Good Manager?

The Mentor’s Dilemma

The Mentor Mindset Framework

Examples of Good Mentorship

Strategies on How to Be a Good Manager


What Makes a Good Manager?

According to David, at the heart of management is a predicament in which many managers need to be individual performers in charge of delivering on a project; but to be efficient and effective, they also need people they can delegate work to. Many people define their role as a manager primarily in terms of how well they're getting other people to do work for projects that they're trying to finish, but David says that this is a short-term and transactional way to think about the management relationship.

Young people are often making their way through a new industry, and they don't know their place yet. The organizational structure of the company may feel arcane and impossible to navigate to them, and as their manager, you are their only window into that hidden world. If they can get to a place where they can independently understand how to be successful and grow, then they can do a lot of great work without direct supervision.

Oftentimes, there is a tension for managers between their career advancement and the career advancement of the young people they manage. But David emphasizes that it is so much fun to see a young person thriving in your organization because you were the right message at the right time for them and that it’s rewarding to feel like you contributed to that.


“We forget that young people are trying to make their way through a new industry and they don't know their place yet. The organizational structure of the company feels arcane and impossible to navigate. And as their manager, you are in many ways their only window into that hidden world.”
David Yeager, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, Author



The Mentor’s Dilemma

The idea of the mentor's dilemma was originally coined by social psychologists Geoffrey Cohen, Claude Steele, and Lee Ross. A mentor's role is to provide critical and direct feedback to help a mentee grow. At the same time, a mentor also provides care and motivation—and sometimes, these two things can be at odds. The mentor’s dilemma refers to the fact that it's difficult to simultaneously criticize someone's work and motivate them because criticism can affect a mentee’s confidence.

David tells the story of his friend Alex Sweeney, a head and neck surgeon and leader at Baylor Medical School. While he was the chief resident at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, Alex supervised medical students and residents on cochlear implants. At the end of a shift, he would give feedback to the group, but they would come in for the next shift and not change anything. The residents would get offended that he was being critical, while Alex would get frustrated because he saw himself as spending valuable time teaching them how to improve based on hours of experience working with patients. On both sides, it was a frustrating experience.

David says that in many cases, this is due to a hyper awareness of status and respect that causes the mentee to infer things that aren’t said directly. In the case of the residents, it was caused by a powerful surgeon criticizing their work in front of the group and making them feel inadequate. There’s a lot of reading between the lines, and those unspoken messages are often what leads to conflict. David has seen this across many industries, and also in relationships, parenting, and classrooms.

This is because a young person's brain is trying to figure out how to be socially successful in the world. Adolescents have a heightened fear-reward learning part of the brain toward social experiences, making them especially sensitive to things like shame, embarrassment, and pride. David says that when a young person feels misunderstood or mistreated, especially if it feels like it has implications for their lasting reputation, it's easy for them to read inferred meaning and react negatively, especially when the other person is a manager who has more power over their future.

Sensitivity to status and respect continues into the twenties, and it's something that even older adults can come back to; there's a mismatch between the status and respect they want to feel, and how someone with power over their outcomes is making them feel. For example, any time people start a new role, such as switching jobs or being promoted, they have a new person to impress and their reputation is once again on the line. In those moments, they may be overly sensitive to language or treatment from a manager.


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The Mentor Mindset Framework

To approach the mentor’s dilemma, David suggests that managers use the mentor mindset framework. In this framework, there are two axes—standards and support—which range from low to high. This results in four different mindsets, or leadership styles.



The enforcer mindset has high standards but offers low support. The good part of the enforcer mindset is that you're being demanding, you're upholding standards, and you're expecting a lot out of the mentee. However, the bad part of the enforcer is that you may end up pushing people away because you come across as authoritarian. To the mentee, it can feel like, “Here's the standard that you need to meet, and if you don’t, you’re out of here.”

The protector mindset gives high support but has low standards. In this approach, the mentor’s main goal is to make the mentee feel cared for, but they don’t expect a lot out of them. There’s also the apathetic mindset, where there are low standards and low support, and the manager simply doesn’t care.

David says that what you want to do as a mentor is maintain a mentor mindset—high standards that expect a lot of the young person, but coupled with the support to help them meet those high standards. From MBA coaches to top executives at Microsoft to grocery store retail managers, the best leaders that David sees fall into this category.

David clarifies that people don’t stay in one mindset all the time, and even great leaders sometimes fall into an enforcer or protector mindset. But at the end of the day, you always want to be aiming to move back toward the mentor mindset.


“It is so much fun to see a young person thriving in your organization because you were the right message at the right time for them. And not that you want to take credit, but you want to feel like I contributed to that.”
David Yeager, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, Author



Examples of Good Mentorship

David says to imagine a scenario where you’re about to present a pitch to a client. Let’s say you have a mentee who is creative and has a lot of good ideas, but the presentation isn’t quite there yet. It doesn’t feel clear enough, and as a mentor you want them to hear all of the potential criticism internally before they present it in front of the client.

He’s found that the simplest and easiest thing to do is to be transparent about the reasons for your feedback. What that looks like is clarifying that your criticism comes from your high standards. You want the client to love the presentation and you want the mentee to get the credit for having done this great work for the client. That way, the mentee can be recognized and be given even more important work in the future.

But the second part is to provide assurance. You might say that you wouldn't be giving this feedback if you didn't think that the quality of work they’ve done so far is great and could be turned into something that will impress the client. It’s sticking to the high standard but also giving assurance that with support the mentee can meet that high standard.

According to David, this is different from a compliment sandwich. He says that with a compliment sandwich, you might hear something like, “I love your enthusiasm” (positive), “your work isn’t great and has to change” (negative), “but I’m really glad you turned this in on time” (positive). In that case, the mentee is trying to keep track of all the positives and negatives and doesn’t know how to proceed with the feedback.

If you put yourself in the position of a young person getting that critical feedback on something they work hard on, they're not asking themselves, “Does this person like me? Are they being more positive or more negative?” They're wondering, “Does this person who has power over my outcomes think I'm capable and add value?” They want to know that they are able to get their work to a place of meeting high standards.


Strategies on How to Be a Good Manager

David says that the best mentors start with an attitude of curiosity. If a young person brings work to you with a mistake, it's your job to figure out what went wrong and help them fix it. Managers with an enforcer mindset would have an approach of “go try harder alone.” They would think that they already explained it to the mentee, and if they didn't get it, it's because they weren't paying attention, they didn’t care, or they’re incompetent. They would think that it’s the mentee’s problems to fix. But oftentimes, people have very legitimate reasons for being confused. Maybe when they gave them the task the manager was unclear, and so the direct report had to read between the lines.

The protector just wants to solve the problems themselves and tells the mentee precisely step by step what to do. This can be insulting, because the mentee may have already tried most of those steps, and you’re repeating the same things. This is why it’s important to surface young people's thinking—to avoid the experience of assuming incorrectly why they got it wrong, and then giving them obvious advice for something they've already tried.

People with a mentor mindset start with curiosity to understand the real cause of the problem. This often means asking questions. You might ask, “Tell me what you've already tried and what didn't work.” It’s also important to validate, because if you just say, “You got everything wrong, do it this way,” but they did about three-fourths of the stuff correctly, then they might not do the three-fourths that they got right the next time.

The mentee may have thought carefully about the task, asked for advice, and made a good plan. It may just be that something got messed up at the end. If you don't validate all the good stuff they already did, they're less likely to repeat that in the future. Instead, you can say, “Here's what was impressive about what you did. Not everyone would do the following, but you did it. We just have to fix this other thing.” Then you can go into troubleshooting mode together, and better understand what your mentee needs from you as a manager.



About the Speaker

David Yeager
Professor of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, Author

Dr. David Yeager is a Raymond Dickinson Centennial Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of the Texas Behavioral Science and Policy Institute. He is also author of the soon to be released, “10 to 25: The Science of Motivating Young People: A Groundbreaking Approach to Leading the Next Generation for Managers, Parents, and Educators.” David’s research focuses on adolescent development and behavior change, including topics such as motivation, aggression, coping, mental and physical health, trust, inequality, and healthy eating.

His research has received several awards, such as the William T. Grant Foundation Scholars Award; Joseph E. Zins Early Career Award for Action Research in Social and Emotional Learning from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL); and a Rising Star award from the Association for Psychological Science (APS).

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