Mentoring …Where the Power Lies

by Sue Taggart

Mentoring is on our mind for several reasons, one January is National Mentoring Month, two we will be looking for interns this Spring and Summer and three, we just read a really interesting article in Psychology Today that made us pause and think more about power and mentoring.

Allison E. McWilliams Ph.D., delved into the power dynamics in mentoring that can have real impacts, and that shouldn’t be ignored. Like most people, we only really think about the positive aspects of mentoring, yes mentoring relationships are incredibly powerful, they do change lives and can certainly contribute to lifelong wellbeing outcomes and engagement at work. But, there is a dark side. As McWilliams points out , “We tend to ascribe mentoring relationships with inherently positive attributes, without recognizing that sometimes mentors use that role to take advantage of their mentees in intentional and unintentional ways. Sometimes mentors encourage or even force their mentees to go down a path that is wrong for them, or even dangerous. Sometimes mentors use their mentees as a form of free labor, in the name of’ ‘development’ or ‘education’. Sometimes, in the worst possible scenarios, very real abuse can happen.”

 As we have all seen post #MeToo era, men in power have certainly taken advantage of young women. And now, 60% of men in positions of power according to a recent and SurveyMonkey poll say that they are unwilling to spend time alone with their female colleagues for fear of how it would look. With the majority of leadership roles across industries still occupied by men, this cuts off opportunities to women in terms of advancement, access, and growth. If men are unwilling to spend time alone with women for fear of accusations, women will be unable to form the mentoring relationships that are necessary for success.

So, make no mistake about it, even with all the good intentions in the world, mentoring relationships are power relationships—the person in the mentor role always has power over the person in the mentee role. The mentor controls access to opportunity, development, networks and resources, things that the mentee aspires too, so of course the mentee wants to be in the relationship. The mentee wants to learn from the mentor, craves his or her feedback and encouragement, and, intended or not, will start to shape his or her behavior in the direction of the mentor’s own.

The takeaways of all this are that mentoring really is a serious business because of the impact on the mentee can be life changing for better or for worse. We have mentored many interns over the years and these relationships have often turned into long term friendships and offers for full time employment with both sides benefiting greatly from the experience. We have never entered into these relationships lightly, nor would we refrain from mentoring just in case someone might accuse us of harassment. But, McWilliams certainly has given us something to think about and her tips are certainly worthwhile check ins:

• Always keep the mentee’s goals in front of you. Mentoring relationships are always about the mentee’s goals, not the mentor’s. When you feel yourself pushing your mentee down a path, check your intentions and bring the relationship and the conversation back to the mentee and his or her goals.

• Check your motivations. Mentoring relationships aren’t reciprocal, quid pro quo situations. You, as the mentor, are there to support the mentee and his or her progress towards their goals. Your goal is not to get something out of the relationship or the other person. Mentoring relationships are a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege to be of service to and to learn from another person. It is the mentor’s privilege.

• Use a mentoring agreement. A tool like a mentoring agreement can help to formalize the process and work that you will be doing together, sets clear expectations for the relationship, and builds in regular check-in points for feedback. It also gives the mentee a tool so that he or she can hold the mentor accountable, which is especially important when there is a considerable power imbalance between the mentoring partners.

On a personal note, mentoring has always been deeply satisfying for me. When you can pass on knowledge and help someone avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes you have made so they can go out and realize their full potential, that’s pretty amazing.

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