Dispelling three common myths of mentoring

Mentoring is often considered a vibrant part of the workplace learning & development menu and mentoring relationships may arise for a variety of reasons. Often people I coach are looking to mentor others, or to be mentored, however, when exploring what mentoring means to them a number of assumptions, or as I prefer to call them, ‘myths’ arise. This blog aims to dispel three of the most common myths to help unleash the magic that mentoring can bring to both mentors and mentees alike.

Myth 1: Being a mentor is a selfless act of corporate philanthropy

According to the Oxford dictionary, a ‘mentor’ is an ‘experienced or trusted adviser’, possibly engaging in training whilst providing counsel and advice. Wikipedia describes mentorship as a relationship between a more experienced and less experienced person. This is where I believe we often miss the point.

For the mentoring relationship to work there needs to be something in it for both parties (mentor and mentee). Failure to acknowledge this can lead to the relationship ‘withering on the vine’ as meetings get cancelled, conversations are de-prioritised, or cut short and the mentee feels de-valued, or embarrassed, at asking for time with the mentor.  

We often focus on what mentees are getting out of the relationship but mentors also have a responsibility to acknowledge how they are benefitting. They need to be clear how important the mentoring relationship will be to them so they can allocate a priority in accordance with this and not over or under commit to the relationship.

Questions mentors can ask themselves include:

  • Why do I want to be a mentor? Is it a driver from myself, my organisation or my boss?
  • How much time am I prepared to devote to this (and for how long)?
  • What sort of people do I want to mentor and why?
  • Where does mentoring fit in with my other priorities?
  • What benefits will I get from being a mentor at this time, in these circumstances and with this person?

Questions mentees can ask themselves:

  • Am I clear on what I want to get out of the mentoring relationship and can I articulate this clearly so that the mentor can make an informed choice about whether to mentor me?
  • Am I respecting the time the mentor is investing in this relationship and also prioritising it from my own perspective?
  • Am I demonstrating I value the mentor by fully engaging in the process, keeping appointments and preparing for it?

Myth 2: Mentoring is all about an inexperienced person learning from an experienced person.

If you have ever tried to explain something to someone else you will know how much this really tests your knowledge and understanding. Just try a little exercise now. Without touching the device you are reading this blog on, articulate verbally how you would describe to someone else how to get from turning your device on to accessing this article. Whilst we may do this sort of navigation without thinking, putting it into words is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

Engaging in mentoring is about developing a relationship which will expose not just what you know, but what you don’t know, what you thought you knew, what you forgot you knew and what you wish you didn’t know. Also questions from a mentee can disrupt your world view, forcing you to see a different perspective and may indeed change you and your own aspirations.

Questions mentors can ask themselves:

  • How open am I to different viewpoints?
  • How patient and articulate am I in my explanations?
  • Am I willing to change and be changed?

Questions mentees can ask themselves:

  • Am I respectfully questioning what I hear and engaging in discussion, rather than just accepting what I hear as ‘gospel’?
  • Am I ridiculously curious and hungry to understand not just ‘what’ but ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘who’?
  • Am I willing to change and be changed?

Myth 3: Mentoring as a relationship is ongoing not time limited

My goodness, this one really gets me. Let’s be clear, mentoring is not a marriage! Sometimes mentoring relationships evolve into friendships and continue, with elements of mentoring re-entering at various points. But ask yourself this. Is it really helpful for a mentee to get all their advice from just one source? Is it stimulating or helpful for a mentor to limit their knowledge to just one, or a handful at most, of mentees.

Organisations change, people change, skills and experience requirements change, views between employees differ and context constantly evolves; hence the mentoring relationship needs to evolve and yes - end.

Questions both mentor and mentees should ask:

  • Are we both clear we can end the formal mentoring relationship at any point - and that will be ok? Ego should not prevent mentors letting go, nor should fear of upsetting a mentor affect the ability of a mentee to say thank you and Namaste.
  • Are we both taking responsibility for checking that the relationship is working and we are both still getting what we want/need from it? The easiest way is to build this into the wrap up of each session as part of a review of how it is going.
  • Are we both giving feedback on each other’s performance (yes this is two-way) so both the mentor and mentee can grow and enhance their mentorship skills.

I have no doubt that a mentoring relationship can be of enormous value to both parties as long as it is conducted on an adult to adult basis with both parties having equal rights and equal responsibilities to make it work. Let’s lose the myths and embrace the magic!

The ABC of mentoring