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The Power of Mentoring Relationships

The power dynamics in mentoring have real impacts that shouldn't be ignored.

“I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter. After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things, terrible, yes. But great.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash
Man and woman holding cups on a table
Source: Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

I know what you’re thinking: Yes! Mentoring relationships are incredibly powerful! They change lives, help keep young people in school and working towards their goals and dreams, and, as the 2018 Strada-Gallup study demonstrated (and the 2014 Purdue-Gallup Index report before it), can contribute to lifelong well-being outcomes and engagement at work. We all need champions, role models, and a supportive network to motivate us and to provide opportunities for further growth and development. These are great, positive, powerful things.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s a reminder that all mentoring relationships are, by their very nature, power relationships, and that power dynamic is not something to ignore or to gloss over. Indeed, in this post #MeToo era, it’s more important than ever to remember the very real possibility to do harm, under the guise of doing good.

A couple of years ago in an op-ed for The New York Times, the champion swimmer Diana Nyad detailed her story of repeated abuse at the hands of her coach. This sentence in particular sums up the experience of so many: “Mine is an age-old scenario. Coaches and priests and doctors and scout leaders and stepfathers and, yes, movie producers, have been preying on those they are supposedly mentoring for far too long.”

We tend to ascribe mentoring relationships with inherently positive attributes, without recognizing that sometimes mentors use that role to take advantage of their mentees in intentional and unintentional ways. Sometimes mentors encourage or even force their mentees to go down a path that is wrong for them, or even dangerous. Sometimes mentors use their mentees as a form of free labor, in the name of “development” or “education.” Sometimes, in the worst possible scenarios, very real abuse can happen.

One of the unintended consequences of the #MeToo movement has been the number of men in positions of power – 60% according to a recent and SurveyMonkey poll – who now say that they are unwilling to spend time alone with their female colleagues for fear of how it would look. With the majority of leadership roles across industries still occupied by men, this cuts off opportunities to women in terms of advancement, access, and growth. If men are unwilling to spend time alone with women for fear of accusations, women will be unable to form the mentoring relationships that are necessary for success.

Mentoring relationships are power relationships. The person in the mentor role always has power over the person in the mentee role, no matter how well-intentioned the mentor is. The mentor controls access to opportunity, development, networks, and resources. The mentee wants to be in a relationship with the mentor because he or she represents something to which the mentee aspires. The mentee wants to learn from the mentor, craves his or her feedback and encouragement, and, intended or not, will start to shape his or her behavior in the direction of the mentor’s own.

What does this mean for mentoring relationships, then? Should they be avoided, for fear of the damage that might be inflicted? Of course not. (And, I would suggest that if you, as a potential mentor, are avoiding these relationships for fear of being accused of harassment, then you have a bigger problem than mentoring.) But neither mentor nor mentee should enter into these relationships lightly, and both should be aware of their responsibilities and their commitments throughout the mentoring process. As a mentor or potential mentor, consider the following tips:

  • Always keep the mentee’s goals in front of you. Mentoring relationships are always about the mentee’s goals, not the mentor’s. When you feel yourself pushing your mentee down a path, check your intentions and bring the relationship and the conversation back to the mentee and his or her goals.
  • Check your motivations. Mentoring relationships aren’t reciprocal, quid pro quo situations. You, as the mentor, are there to support the mentee and his or her progress towards their goals. Your goal is not to get something out of the relationship or the other person. Mentoring relationships are a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege to be of service to and to learn from another person. It is the mentor’s privilege.
  • Use a mentoring agreement. A tool like a mentoring agreement can help to formalize the process and work that you will be doing together, sets clear expectations for the relationship, and builds in regular check-in points for feedback. It also gives the mentee a tool so that he or she can hold the mentor accountable, which is especially important when there is a considerable power imbalance between the mentoring partners.

Doing these things won’t fool-proof your relationship and ensure that nothing untoward happens. Mentoring relationships require constant work and attention in order to result in positive outcomes for the mentee, which should always be the goal and the focus of any effective mentoring relationship.

I’ve always loved the quote at the top of this post, from the wand-maker Ollivander at the beginning of the Harry Potter books. I love the juxtaposition of those two words, “terrible” and “great.” What Ollivander is saying to us (and to Harry) is that there is a fine line between the two, that greatness is not necessarily the same as goodness. Mentoring is an awesome opportunity, yes. It is the opportunity to grow and develop another person, to speak into their life in meaningful and powerful ways. But it is also an awesome responsibility and one that is not to be taken lightly, or given forcefully.

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