Why a formal mentoring program can be problematic

By J. W. Traphagan 4 minute Learn

The opposite day I used to be requested to steer a committee that may assess and make suggestions for the mentoring program in my division. I used to be a bit shocked, since I had no concept such a mentoring program existed. We speak about mentoring, after all. However the presence of a systematic method to mentoring was information to me.

I’m usually a massive fan of systematic approaches to issues, however as I mirrored on the concept, I began questioning whether or not mentoring applications really make a lot sense. After I began instructing at the College of Texas in 2001, I used to be assigned a school mentor. I’m fairly positive I by no means really spoke to him about something associated to mentoring. I’m unsure I ever spoke to him about something in any respect. A part of the issue was that the division chair on the time had made it clear new hires had been on their very own—after asking about whether or not or not I ought to pursue a chance that had arisen, he advised me, “it’s as much as you; I’m not going to carry your hand.” That definitely was a wonderful solution to shut down requests for recommendation.


However there was one other, deeper, motive I didn’t discuss with my mentor: Energy. 

As with many mentorship applications, the concept was that senior school would pair with junior school and mentor them about all issues academia. Most essential on this was the tenure course of, which is each difficult and arcane. The issue is that those self same senior school members assigned as mentors will be making choices about the way forward for the junior school when it comes time for promotion and tenure. And it’s unlikely that they’ll spend a nice deal of time reflecting on whether or not they did a good job mentoring a specific recruit because the promotion file is being evaluated.

The mentee is in a robust spot. Do I hassle my assigned mentor with one thing they could see as trivial, which leads them to view me as a pest or immature? If I don’t hassle my mentor with questions and arrange conferences repeatedly, will they see me as disinterested of their recommendation? It has the potential to be a no-win state of affairs.

I see mentorship as falling into two classes: compelled and natural. Compelled mentorship is commonly the sort that exists in “applications” aimed toward serving to junior folks work by the complicated energy and coverage buildings that exist in a corporation. The issue is that the individual doing the mentoring is normally additionally embedded in these buildings and, in actual fact, might be each symbolically and virtually somebody who holds energy over junior staff. On this case, the concept of mentoring might have little which means, as a result of the junior individual is unlikely to question about or increase points that will be controversial or which may counsel something damaging in regards to the group. It could be prudent for the mentee to maintain their playing cards near the vest.

In different phrases, compelled mentoring applications might look good on paper, as a result of they make it seem as if a corporation is enacting insurance policies and procedures to assist junior staff succeed and develop of their careers, however the primary energy buildings in any group are more likely to really work in opposition to open and trustworthy communication between assigned mentor and mentee. It’s not actually attainable to totally belief somebody who finally will be in a place of energy to make choices about your future.

Natural mentoring relationships are more likely to bear fruit as a result of they’re grounded in a sense of mutual belief that emerges as the connection develops over time. That is notably true if the connection includes a mentor exterior of the group during which the mentee works—that can imply one other firm and even simply one other division inside a firm. If the connection develops naturally, there’s a good potential for the mentee to achieve information and perception that may assist, as a result of the mentee will really feel empowered to boost tough points ought to they come up.

This brings up a primary query: Ought to we even hassle with compelled mentorship applications? Though I feel mentoring is essential, I’m not very smitten by applications that assign mentoring relationships inside an organizational construction. They’re extra more likely to reinforce energy relationships and trigger people who lack energy to keep away from interactions with senior employees. The very last thing I might have executed was inform my mentor that the chair of my division was principally callous in his response to my request for recommendation. Why? As a result of my mentor was on the identical rank because the division chair and, little doubt, repeatedly mentioned junior school with him. The very last thing I wished to do was sound like a whiner. 


Creating alternatives for relationships with senior people that can come up organically, and that aren’t inside one’s fast group or division, has the potential for producing good mentoring. A method to do that is to create alternatives for folks to informally and voluntarily be paired on the premise of frequent curiosity or experience. A web site the place potential mentors and mentees can join has potential to perform this with out creating a program. Nevertheless it’s needed that the mentees’ direct supervisors usually are not concerned and don’t have any information of who’s mentoring.  

A very powerful message to bear in mind is that leaders want to acknowledge that simply having a mentoring program doesn’t imply you’re undertaking something optimistic. Actually, relying on the way it’s constructed, your mentoring program might do extra injury than good. 

And as for that committee, I declined to serve on it.