By Lauren Neal, below
Mentorship can be an effective tool in creating inclusive workplace cultures, but its success is dependent on how it is implemented. The perception of mentorship and how it is rolled out to the workforce is crucial to the understanding and uptake of mentors taking on the roll to assist and support each other without competing against each other. Promoting healthy competition is a natural phenomenon, however, competition from a mentor can be extremely detrimental to the relationship.
What is mentorship and why is it important?
Mentorship is when an experienced person takes time to provide advice and guidance to a less experienced person. It can be on a specific topic or be more general in the form of career development. At its core, a mentor uses their own experiences to form opinions and advice shared with others.
When someone joins a new company or accepts a new role with an accompanying learning curve, a mentor can be extremely beneficial to help that person navigate through challenges. This could be related to the role itself, the team setup, technical queries, and organisational challenges among others. A mentor can provide advice and suggestions for next steps by sharing their own experiences and actions that led them to a successful outcome. In addition, if they happen to know the organisation and people, they may be able to provide a perspective that may be helpful when discussing how to move forward. This can be pivotal in a person’s personal and professional development as mentoring promotes learning, skill development, and guidance.
Mentorship can be particularly effective for students and young professionals, entrepreneurs and business leaders, and employees in the corporate world. It can also be extremely beneficial for individuals from under-recognised groups, including women.
It is crucial that any mentorship programme or agreement has clear goals and boundaries. This will engage, assist, and support nurturing ideas that will help the mentee build their confidence to speak up, assured that their idea is worthy of consideration and promotion. The mentor-mentee relationship must understand emotional intelligence where any initial reaction is driven by emotions before a rational, measured response is provided. The mentor and mentee will work well when this is understood.
When mentorship goes wrong
While there are well-understood benefits of mentorship, there have been examples where the relationship between mentor and mentee breaks down. One example of this is where one or both in the relationship compete with the other.
Competition can be healthy, particularly when a mentor challenges their mentee to exceed their own expectations. However, when a mentor begins to feel intimidated by the potential or talent of their mentee, they may no longer be supportive in helping their mentee achieve success. This may be due to feeling overlooked themselves, a relationship breakdown with their mentee, or not having the right approach when entering into the mentoring relationship – e.g. doing it to ‘look good’. Any of these reasons can be extremely detrimental and when their ego comes into play, they may begin to compete with their mentee. While the mentor may feel like they have an easy ‘win’, this can result in a lack of psychological safety for the mentee, increased stress, anxiety, undermined trust, and can result in the mentee feeling negative about their abilities and skills. In most cases, when this happens the mentorship needs to end.
A better approach
One example stated in ‘Valued at Work: Shining a light on bias to engage, enable, and retain women in STEM’ is where a mentor tells her mentee “I want you to be better than me and do it faster than me”. This approach removes all suggestion of competition between the two individuals and sets the groundwork for a collaborative and supportive relationship where they can learn from each other. In increasingly competitive environments, it is crucial for anyone to have a ‘safe space’ where they can test ideas and gain advice in order to progress in their careers.
A key aspect of mentorship is sharing of knowledge and insights, with high levels of trust and collaboration. This approach supports a mentee’s development and creates an environment of psychological safety with their mentor. When a mentor resorts to competing with their mentee, the opposite occurs – reduced sharing of knowledge and insights, erosion of trust and collaboration, and hindered mentee, as well as mentor, development. For inclusive workplace cultures, trust and support is critical. Removing competition and making clear the purpose and desired outcomes of mentorship is vital for any mentorship programme success. Organisations and individuals need to re-evaluate their mentorship programmes to ensure they prioritise trust and collaboration, with a mutual intention of support for all involved.
Lauren Neal is the author of Valued at Work: Shining a Light on Bias to Engage, Enable, and Retain Women in STEM (£14.99, Practical Inspiration)