When Mentoring goes Wrong
In grad school, I observed that, with a few exceptions, PhD students could be classified into three groups, depending on the relationship they had with their advisor. The first (and the smallest) group experienced a positive mentoring relationship: PhDs in this group had someone who actively supported them and provided them with resources. The second (and the largest) group had an “absent mentor”: PhDs had a minimal professional relationship with their advisor, and could only count on themselves to make progress. Finally, the third (and unfortunately not so small) group had to deal with a “bad mentor”: An advisor not only who did little to help them, but also that they had to actively manage to avoid negative repercussions on their well-being, work and future career.
Mentoring is generally depicted as a positive experience for the mentee: Because a mentor can bring the guidance, support, advice, feedback, visibility, and sponsorship a person needs to reach their full career potential, employees are encouraged to find people with whom they could develop a mentor/mentee relationship.
Research indeed suggests that having a mentor can be beneficial in terms of salary growth, career progression and job satisfaction. However, when the mentoring experience turns negative, it increases stress, decreases job satisfaction, and ultimately lead to higher turnover.
What does a positive mentoring experience look like?
It refers to an intense relationship between a mentor (a senior, more experienced employee) and a mentee or protégé (a junior, less experienced employee) in which the mentor provides both career and psychological support to the mentee. This support can take many forms: At the most basic level, mentoring consists of sharing tips to help the mentee navigate the organization. This support can also be more intense, such as opening valuable work opportunities, recommending the protégé for internal job mobility, or facilitating connections with important organizational members. The mentor will then play a role of coach, sponsor, and protector.
At the extreme, a very positive mentoring experience will start looking like a “high-quality interpersonal relationship” characterized by:
- The ability to share emotions, both positive and negative.
- A positive regard: Both members of the relationship experience a sense of being acknowledged and appreciated.
- The ability to manage stress, handle changes, and bounce back when facing difficulties.
- A sense of reciprocity. This can seem counter-intuitive, but even if a mentor-mentee relationship is, by nature, asymmetrical (the mentor helps the mentee), the mentor should still feel that they are getting benefits (such as pride, intellectual emulation, status and influence, or inspiration).
What are the characteristics of a negative mentoring experience?
Negative mentoring is not simply the absence of positive mentoring: It is a qualitatively different experience. In a negative mentoring relationship, not only the mentor does not provide the support the mentee expects, but they also engage in specific negative behaviors. The mentee must not only fend for themselves, but they must also manage the negative (and sometimes destructive) behaviors of the mentor.
More precisely, research has identified five characteristics of a negative mentoring experience:
- Mismatch between persons: The mentor and the mentee have different values, work styles, and personality that make personal and professional alignment difficult.
- Distancing behavior: The mentor neglects or deliberately excludes the mentee from important events.
- Manipulative behavior, in the form of power abuse, politicking, sabotage, or taking credit for the mentee’s successes.
- Lack of mentor expertise, either interpersonal (the mentor doesn’t have the people skills required for a successful mentoring relationship) or technical (the mentor is not sufficiently good at their job to help the mentee succeed).
- General dysfunctionality: The mentor either had a negative attitude toward their work or the organization, or has personal problems that interfere with their mentor role.
What is your Mentoring Relationship?
The mentee can therefore experience four different mentoring relationships:
- The ideal relationship is high in positive behaviors, and low in negative behaviors. The mentor is fully supportive, the mentee know that they can rely on their mentor, and that the mentor won’t abuse the power asymmetry.
- The worst relationship is low in positive behaviors, and high in negative behaviors: Not only is the mentee in a situation in which they cannot count on their mentor, but they will also have to take active measures to protect themselves from the mentor’s behaviors.
- The average relationship is low in positive behaviors, and low in negative behaviors. This is a typically uninvolved relationship between the mentor and the mentee: The mentor will neither go out of their way to help the mentee but will also not do anything to hurt them.
- Finally, some odd relationships can be high in positive behaviors and high in negative behaviors. One day, someone told me of his past mentor: “I learned a lot from him, but what a son of a b**** he was!" In some cases, a mentor can be actively involved in helping the mentee grow, but without having the interpersonal skills necessary to make the relationship smooth.
What are the implications of negative mentoring experience?
First, organizations should be mindful that a positive mentoring relationship is more than a relationship free of abusive behaviors: Mentors must be able and willing to proactively support their mentee.
Second, when organizations cannot provide employees with good mentors, employees would be better off not having a mentor at all: At least they won’t have to deal with unprofessional behaviors.
Finally, not everybody can be a mentor: All too often, organizations believe that anyone experienced enough or senior enough can mentor someone else. Of course, a mentor needs experience, but it is not enough: They also need to have the skills, the connections, the emotional intelligence, and the motivation to mentor someone junior. By extension, it also means that organizations probably need to invest in training if they want their employees to become better mentors.
To go further…
To assess your mentoring relationship: https://g2tdhp-zoezi.shinyapps.io/mentoring/
- Carmeli A, Brueller D, Dutton JE. Learning behaviours in the workplace: The role of high‐quality interpersonal relationships and psychological safety. Syst Res Behav Sci Off J Int Fed Syst Res. 2009;26(1):81–98.
- Eby L, Butts M, Lockwood A, Simon SA. Protégés' negative mentoring experiences: Construct development and nomological validation. Pers Psychol. 2004;57(2):411–47.
- Ragins BR, McFarlin DB. Perceptions of mentor roles in cross-gender mentoring relationships. J Vocat Behav. 1990;37(3):321–39.