Mentoring is a collaborative relationship, rooted with principles and practices of adult learning. A mentor and mentee work together to define and achieve mutually defined goals that focus on the mentee’s growth and development in skills, abilities, knowledge and/or thinking. It is in every way a reciprocal learning partnership. Being in such a relationship can be daunting for a mentee, especially so for first-time mentees who often lack the confidence and competence needed to feel comfortable in a mentoring relationship.
Many mentees feel that they don’t bring anything to the relationship and come to the relationship waiting for a mentor “to take them under their wing.” Even though power in the relationship is supposed to shared, it is a still and formidable presence. Frequently mentees are afraid to assert themselves and ask for what they need for fear of offending their mentor and not being respectful of their status.
Both the presence of power and the feeling of powerlessness can negatively impact a mentoring relationship. And, when it does, it results in conflict, withdrawal, inauthenticity, and unproductive posturing. This is why it is critical that the mentor creates a safe and welcoming space that gives the mentee permission to be authentic, vulnerable and honest.
What are some of the things you can do to level the playing field for a mentee who feels he has no power in the relationship?
First base: Set ground rules at the beginning of the relationship. Ground rules lay the foundation for the relationship and become yardsticks for mutual accountability throughout the relationship. Engage your mentee in creating these ground rules. It will give him an immediate sense of ownership in the relationship. Setting ground rules is even more important in cross-cultural and distance mentoring relationships where the opportunity for misunderstanding is great.
Second base: Check in often with your mentees. Find out how the relationship is going for them and let them know what is working for you and what is not. Benchmark your progress against your goals. Use your ground rules as a yardstick to evaluate how well the relationship is working. Talk about how you are spending your mentoring time. Is the time you are spending productive? Are there things you should be spending more time on? Less time?
Third base: Ask powerful questions. Questions engage the mentee. It is tempting to use your mentoring sessions to talk about your knowledge and experience. It takes less time and you may feel that since you know what works you might as well expedite the process. You may even consider it a waste of time if you don’t. Our experience demonstrates that one-way mentoring relationships miss the mark and frequently end up making the mentee feel powerless. Use questions to engage the mentee in the conversation. Questions facilitate learning by encouraging a mentee to reflect. Asking questions that require thoughtful answers can help mentees articulate their own thinking.
Home plate: Invite feedback by asking for your mentee’s input. Mentees are generally reluctant to give feedback to a mentor about the advice they have received from them. Encourage their feedback. For example, you may have spent a session talking about a solution to a problem. Ask them if you were on target with your suggestions. Were they relevant? Did they work? What else might they have needed?
Have you touched all the bases?