Problems to Avoid

woman with business mentor
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Mentoring is a process in which a senior or experienced person offers career or job advice to a junior or inexperienced individual. Some companies have formal mentoring programs, while informal, ad hoc mentoring arrangements are commonplace. Understanding the potential pitfalls of the process is critical to making a mentoring relationship work for you, either as a protege or as a mentor. For a closely-related topic, see our discussion of workplace sponsors.

Personality Conflicts:

The success of a mentoring relationship depends heavily on whether the parties are a good fit in terms of personalities and personal values. In particular, if the parties have widely different views on work/life balance, especially if the mentor lives to work while the protege works to live, this can create a huge obstacle to a successful collaboration.

Manipulative Mentors: 

Some people hold themselves out as mentors or sponsors largely for selfish reasons, in order to exploit their proteges in various ways. See our discussion of manipulative mentors and sponsors.

Dishonest Proteges: 

Proteges, meanwhile, may misrepresent what their mentors have said or done, in order to gain advantages of their own. Some proteges may cut corners, make untrue or inflated assertions, fabricate analyses or steal ideas from their mentors. Such proteges inevitably reflect badly on their mentors, even if what they have done was without the mentors' prior knowledge.

Choosing With Care:

Prospective mentors and proteges alike should choose each other with care. Being thus associated with someone who has a poor reputation, or who later develops one or falls from favor in the organization, can be damaging to one's future prospects.

Time Commitment:

Prospective proteges should be concerned about whether a prospective mentor is willing and able to devote enough time to the relationship.

Likewise, a prospective mentor who cannot make such a commitment should make this clear to a prospective protege.

Independent Thinking:

A mentoring relationship should teach a protege to think and act independently. Mentors should discourage blind, passive following, and should avoid becoming too controlling.

Diversification: ​

Proteges can benefit from having multiple mentors, getting different viewpoints. Also, if one mentor attempts to abuse the relationship (see above), the protege can turn to another for advice and assistance. Likewise, a mentor who is in the unfortunate situation of being unfairly criticized publicly by a vindictive protege can limit the damage if he or she has other proteges who can offer positive assessments of their mentoring relationships.

Principal Source: "When Mentoring Goes Bad," The Wall Street Journal, The Journal Report section in collaboration with the MIT Sloan Management Review, 5/24/2010. Authors: Dawn E. Chandler (Department of Management, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo) and Lillian Eby (Department of Psychology, University of Georgia).

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