There are countless traps along the path of mentordom. Mentoring can be a power trip for those seeking an admirer, a manifestation of greed for those who must have slaves. Mentoring can be a platform for proselytizing a cause or crusade, a strong tale told to an innocent or unknowing listener. However, the traps of power, greed, and crusading all pale when compared with the subtler “watch out for’s” listed below. There are other traps, of course, but these are the ones that most frequently raise their ugly heads to sabotage healthy relationships.
I can help
When is help helpful and when is it harmful? People inclined to be charitable with their time, energy, and expertise often attempt to help when what the learner actually needs is to struggle and find her own way. Here’s a test: if you ask the protégé, “may I help?” And she says “no,” how do you feel? Be honest with yourself. If you react with even a trace of rejection and self-pity, this may be your trap to avoid.
I know best
Some people become mentors because they enjoy being recognized as someone in the know. They relish the affirmations from protégés who brag to others about their helpful mentor. They especially like protégés who regularly compliment them on their contribution. This is a trap! You may get off track and end up using the protégé for your own recognition needs. The test? If your protégé comes to you and says that he has found someone else who might be more helpful as a mentor, how do you react? If you feel more than mild and momentary disappointment, beware! This may be your special trap.
I can help you get ahead
Mentors can be useful in getting around organizational barriers, getting into offices otherwise closed, and getting special tips useful in climbing the ladder of success. As sometime king makers, their promises carry an “I can get it for you wholesale” seduction. All these “gettings” can be valuable and important. They can also add a bartering, sinister component to an otherwise promising relationship. The “you scratch my back, and . . .” Approach to mentoring relationships can infuse a score-keeping dimension that is detrimental to both parties. Although reciprocity can be important, a tit-for-tat aspect can lead one person in the relationship to a score-keeping, “you owe me one” view of the relationship.
You need me
When mentors feel that their protégés need them, they are laying the groundwork for a relationship based on dependence. Although many mentor-protégé partnerships begin with some degree of dependence, the goal is to transform the relationship into one of strength and interdependence. A relationship based on dependence can ultimately become a source of resentment for the protégé, false power for the mentor. If the protégé views the mentoring process as a chore or a necessary ritual, it is generally a dependent relationship that will not be allowed to grow up.
Remember, the focus should be on helping the protégé become strong, not on helping the protégé feel better about being weak. Avoiding the traps of mentoring will help you help your protégé become a self-directed learner on a journey to be the best they can be.