Why creating a mentoring program at your organization can be problematic

The other day I was asked to lead a committee that would assess and make recommendations for the mentoring program in my department. I was a bit surprised, since I had no idea such a mentoring program existed. We talk about mentoring, of course. But the presence of a systematic approach to mentoring was news to me.

I’m normally a big fan of systematic approaches to things, but as I reflected on the idea, I started wondering whether mentoring programs actually make much sense. When I started teaching at the University of Texas in 2001, I was assigned a faculty mentor. I’m pretty sure I never actually spoke to him about anything related to mentoring. I’m not sure I ever spoke to him about anything at all. Part of the problem was that the department chair at the time had made it clear new hires were on their own—after asking about whether or not I should pursue an opportunity that had arisen, he told me, “it’s up to you; I’m not going to hold your hand.” That certainly was an excellent way to shut down requests for advice.

But there was another, deeper, reason I didn’t talk with my mentor: Power. 

As with many mentorship programs, the idea was that senior faculty would pair with junior faculty and mentor them about all things academia. Most important in this was the tenure process, which is both challenging and arcane. The problem is that those same senior faculty members assigned as mentors will be making decisions about the future of the junior faculty when it comes time for promotion and tenure. And it’s unlikely that they will spend a great deal of time reflecting on whether they did a good job mentoring a particular recruit as the promotion file is being evaluated.

The mentee is in a tough spot. Do I bother my assigned mentor with something they may see as trivial, which leads them to view me as a pest or immature? If I don’t bother my mentor with questions and set up meetings regularly, will they see me as disinterested in their advice? It has the potential to be a no-win situation.

I see mentorship as falling into two categories: forced and organic. Forced mentorship is often the kind that exists in “programs” aimed at helping junior people work through the complex power and policy structures that exist in an organization. The problem is that the person doing the mentoring is usually also embedded in those structures and, in fact, may be both symbolically and practically someone who holds power over junior employees. In this case, the idea of mentoring may have little meaning, because the junior person is unlikely to query about or raise issues that may be controversial or that might suggest anything negative about the organization. It may be prudent for the mentee to keep their cards close to the vest.

In other words, forced mentoring programs may look good on paper, because they make it appear as though an organization is enacting policies and procedures to help junior employees succeed and develop in their careers, but the basic power structures in any organization are likely to actually work against open and honest communication between assigned mentor and mentee. It is not really possible to fully trust someone who ultimately will be in a position of power to make decisions about your future.

Organic mentoring relationships are much more likely to bear fruit because they are grounded in a sense of mutual trust that emerges as the relationship develops over time. This is particularly true if the relationship involves a mentor outside of the organization in which the mentee works—that can mean another company or even just another division within a company. If the relationship develops naturally, there is a good potential for the mentee to gain knowledge and insight that will help, because the mentee will feel empowered to raise difficult issues should they arise.

This brings up a basic question: Should we even bother with forced mentorship programs? Although I think mentoring is important, I’m not very enthusiastic about programs that assign mentoring relationships within an organizational structure. They’re more likely to reinforce power relationships and cause individuals who lack power to avoid interactions with senior staff. The last thing I would have done was tell my mentor that the chair of my department was basically callous in his response to my request for advice. Why? Because my mentor was at the same rank as the department chair and, no doubt, regularly discussed junior faculty with him. The last thing I wanted to do was sound like a whiner. 

Creating opportunities for relationships with senior individuals that can arise organically, and that are not within one’s immediate group or division, has the potential for generating good mentoring. One way to do this is to create opportunities for people to informally and voluntarily be paired on the basis of common interest or expertise. A website where potential mentors and mentees can connect has potential to accomplish this without creating a program. But it’s necessary that the mentees’ direct supervisors are not involved and have no knowledge of who is mentoring.  

The most important message to keep in mind is that leaders need to recognize that just having a mentoring program does not mean you are accomplishing anything positive. In fact, depending on how it’s constructed, your mentoring program may do more damage than good. 

And as for that committee, I declined to serve on it. 

J.W. Traphagan is a Professor in Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures. Follow him on Twitter @John_Traphagan.  

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