How to Improve Mentoring Relationships
Six critical elements that can lead to safer and healthier mentorships
Posted August 31, 2019
The conversation initially started when I asked him to share his thoughts about a question I myself received in a recent podcast interview :
“What effects do you think the #MeToo movement has on men’s willingness to mentor women?”
I’d like to first point out the obvious alternate question, “What do we also do about the fact that some women are uncomfortable being mentored by men, especially those who have already previously experienced past sexual harassment? How can we help them feel safer?” (see Tarana Burke's TED talk at about 6 min 30 sec on this )
#MeToo was a term initially coined by Tarana Burke in 2006 and later made viral in 2017 by Alyssa Milano. Its focus was in part to increase awareness of the impact and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.
The movement has helped highlight a major ongoing problem across all industries. Unfortunately, it has also created an additional barrier for women’s advancement potential: a fear among even well-intentioned good male mentors that a behavior may be misinterpreted, reported, and lead to devastating effects regardless of accuracy or outcome.
This fear has led to a question now being commonly asked in the world of women’s leadership development: What is the impact on the advancement of women into leadership roles if more male mentors are opting out due to this fear?
No, women don’t have to be mentored by just male mentors. But in male-dominated fields where we need more mentorship and advocacy for women leaders, that greatly limits the options available to them. Even in industries where the gender balance is more equal, that still removes more mentoring opportunities for women than men.
The good news is that we really don’t need to wait until the damage is done in order to improve this dynamic.
There is actually plenty of guidance that can be offered to both mentors and mentees who would like to proactively improve the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship and avoid these types of pitfalls.
The key lies in what Randy reminded me in our interview. We do not consider mentorship for what it really is: complex, nuanced, and requiring care and consideration.
Mentorship isn’t “just business”. It’s a close work relationship that we enter into and develop intentionally.
The mentee (if well-intended) is seeking ongoing guidance from someone they perceive to be wise and caring of their needs.
The mentor (if well-intended) is often seeking the ability to give back to others what he/she has learned.
They each have specific expectations of the other.
Have they discussed their expectations?
Do they even know what drives their desire for that type of relationship? Usually they know the surface-level drivers, but rarely are they aware of unconscious drivers.
And it is with this thought in mind that I recently reached out to my good colleague, Dr. Michael Plaut . Before Mike retired, he was a psychologist and sex therapist and also consulted to health professional boards when healthcare professionals were accused of sexual boundary violations with their patients.
Several years ago, I worked with Mike on a research study identifying common risk factors for healthcare professionals who ended up in these situations. Mike has published extensively on this subject.
Here are 6 common elements he saw in his therapy and consulting practice:
A healthy mentoring relationship involves many elements that can each occur along its own continuum, as in this figure. The goal is to develop the level of boundaries, relationship expectations, and broader professional standards of behavior that create a safe environment, structure, and positive connection for trust to develop.
As you read more about each, consider that - as with most behavior that lies on a continuum - sometimes either end of the spectrum can be problematic (e.g., too few vs. too much).
All professional relationships require professional boundaries. These can include a wide range of actions depending on the context, like how much of your personal life to share or not share, when a hug is appropriate and not, or when a business lunch is warranted or not (see below). (In fact, all relationships, even if not professional, should have appropriate boundaries.)
All relationships that include a power differential (like teacher-student, doctor-patient, parent-child, and yes, mentor-mentee) rely heavily on trust to work well. The person in power (mentor) is trusted to take additional care not to violate that trust. This comes in the form of setting clear boundaries at the outset, and ultimately avoiding risk factors that can lead to a succession of boundary crossings (i.e., "slippery slope”, see below) along the way. And as with all relationships, trust needs to go both ways. Teachers, doctors, mentors, and others in the position of power also lay trust in their students, patients, and mentees that there is good intention in seeking their help.
Sometimes a mentee’s expectations of the mentor may not be realistic or may rely on misplaced personal needs. Mentees might become overly reliant on their mentor for emotional support, to a degree or quantity that is excessive. Other times, mentors may use the mentoring relationship to provide themselves with a sense of importance or fulfillment that keeps them from letting go or encouraging the mentee to fly on her own.
Dr. Plaut notes that “many people still do not understand that certain consensual sexual behaviors are not appropriate in certain settings... And even if they were acceptable, consent can be so easily coerced in an unequal relationship” (see Power Differential above). In the absence of clear institutional policies or professional regulations prohibiting these behaviors, it is the mentor’s responsibility to ensure he/she is creating a safe environment with clear roles and boundaries.
When we experience significant personal life stressors and struggles, we look to others for help, including coworkers and mentors. Leaning on important others for emotional support is important to our psychological health. But we must be aware that in a vulnerable state, we may be more susceptible to leaning on others beyond “just” a professional relationship. In addition to the more typical risk factors, there are also certain personality characteristics that are concerning, such as being pathologically narcissistic, having little regard or empathy for others, and considering oneself above the law or certain rules.
Risk factors can lead to a succession of behaviors that may violate important professional boundaries. What we’ve learned is that sexual boundary violations often start like all other typical professional relationships, with meeting in the office. But at some point, someone in the relationship starts loosening the boundaries, seeing the relationship as closer than it should or needs to be, and invites the other to coffee... then dinner... then the house. The loosening of boundaries can be incredibly slow and subtle, so self-awareness is key.
The above risk factors are not meant to suggest that mentoring relationships cannot become a warm, close professional relationship. In fact, as Mike notes, being too distant isn’t always that helpful either. Rather, these are offered as a path to start having important discussions and expectations.
Plaut, S. M. (2012). Can My Student Be My Friend? Faculty-Student Boundary Issues in Advising and Teaching. The Advisor. Accessed online at