What Makes a Bad Mentor? Avoiding Toxic Mentoring

We find that so often that mentors do not realize how powerful their influence is.  There is plenty of information concerning all the things mentors can do to impart their knowledge and insight.  Organizations are implementing structured mentoring programs for their less experienced ones and everybody acknowledges the importance and benefits of mentoring.  

Avoiding Toxic Mentoring_how to be a good mentor_suzzanne uhland
Image courtesy of Brian Ujiie at Flickr.com

However, there are some mentors who abuse or distort the mentor-mentee relationship, focusing their efforts on making their protégé more like them, having ulterior motives such as receiving personal credit, achieving frustrated unaccomplished goals instead of helping their mentee’s potential.  There are some insights that mentors can reflect on in order to avoid making some crucial mistakes and guide mentees in the most purposeful way.

Some personal characteristics for successful mentors are role-modeling, respect, good communication skills, wisdom and expertise. They want to support, share their knowledge, give feedback and empower their protégés. In contrast, none of the characteristics that will be listed below will make a great mentor… ever.  Not all mentors are what they appear to be.  Bad mentors (also called “Tormentors” by some people) are those who do not show appropriate professional and personal boundaries, misuse their mentee’s potential, criticize excessively and display other forms of unethical behavior.  Identifying them will help avoid the selection of mentors prone to promote negative conducts and experiences. These are some of the negative mentor’s profiles protégés might encounter:

  • Egocentric: these mentors believe there are flawless, matchless and better than everyone else.  Since they know how to do everything, it is the mentee who should feel privileged and thankful to ever be allowed in their presence. They are self-absorbed and lack a sense of altruism.  They provide mentoring only for their own profit or ulterior motives. They can take credit for the achievements of their mentees.  This practice can destroy the mentee’s motivation and self-confidence.

  • Controlling:  these mentors never want to be challenged.  They expect their mentees to agree completely with everything they suggest. They have a strong need of power; consequently they show a demanding and authoritarian approach, and a disregard for the mentee’s opinions.  Mentees suffer under this regime because they cannot try new ideas of their own and cannot learn as much in the mentoring relationship.  This practice blocks the mentee’s development in many ways by oversupervising or withholding valuable information.

  • Unqualified: these mentors have a false appearance of being knowledgeable and accessible, but they are not.  They lack expertise.  Mentors truly need to know about their field, in terms of content, procedures and experiences, and have the qualifications to provide meaningful guidance.

  • Uninterested:  theses mentors did not want to mentor in the first place and they were assigned for the duty although they did not ask for it.  They would perform carelessly and help their mentees minimally.  Maybe they neglect their protégés because they are too busy due to their careers or organizational workload. These mentors are rarely available for providing support or reviewing their mentee’s goals or concerns.

  • Excessive talker:  Mentors would consider their primary role is to give advice and provide guidance.  That’s understandable.  The problem is they end up talking too much, advising too much, and listening too little to their mentees’ input, questions and concerns.  Learning to listen is a skill that requires practice but it will produce great empathy in the mentor-mentee relationship.
Man Speaking_suzzanne uhland_how to be a good mentor
Image courtesy of www.audio-luci-store.it at Flickr.com

To summarize, mentors are fundamental for professional progress and career development. They provide their invaluable experience to other individuals.  Mentors are an amazing tool to help others when they do it responsibly and with the right reasons and intentions.  Since mentoring represents such an intense interpersonal relationship, positive and negative experiences can be produced. Negative mentoring experiences can be the product of many factors that involve both mentors and mentees.  In this article I have focused specifically on the mentor’s performance and by no means do I want to state that they are the only ones responsible for negative mentoring experiences.

As can be seen, in order to avoid some unhealthy aspects in the mentoring relationship, organizations have a responsibility to carefully select potential mentors and pair them appropriately with their mentees.  Dysfunctional mentors can be defined as individuals that have wrong underlying intentions in their practice. Some mentors can accept mentoring as a way to exert authority, to pass on unwanted work or to make up for their personal weaknesses. Only those individuals who are really interested in the challenge and have the right motivation and attitude should be encouraged to become mentors.  Equally important is that mentees have the right to ponder what they are being advised and if there is uneasiness in the mentoring relationship they can honestly express their dissatisfaction and, if there is no way to solve the issues, look for other exemplary mentors who are full of passion about what they do and that want to build genuine relationships.