What do mentees fear most?
A mentor enters a mentoring relationship knowing she has skills and knowledge to share with her mentee. Naturally this makes the mentor feel pretty good. Not only is she a decent and generous person, willing to share her expertise; she is also a person of value, having expertise worth sharing.
While we are all for mentors feeling good about themselves, we encourage every mentor to take into consideration how it feels to be on the other side of the mentoring relationship. For many mentees, fear is the primary emotion experienced when she first sits across from a mentor.
“But I’m not scary,” I can hear you say. It’s not about your personality or the way you dress. What drives mentees’ fear most is self-doubt. Sitting across from a more senior, more knowledgeable mentor, it is easy for a mentee to feel they don’t stack up. They worry that they will be judged by this successful person and found wanting.
As a mentor you are no doubt struggling with your own self-doubt, just like the rest of us (at least those of us who aren’t narcissists). But don’t underestimate how powerful, poised, experienced and confident you look to your mentee.
How fear gets in the way
While it’s tempting to simply bask in the reflected glory of your mentee’s awe, be aware that fear has the potential to undermine the good work you hope to achieve as a mentor.
At the heart of understanding is a willingness to ask questions. Yet mentees often fear that a “dumb” question will make them look foolish, so they simply stay silent. Without the free flow of questions, your sage guidance may be misunderstood.
As a mentor, you rely on your mentee to weigh up suggestions and advice, acting only on ideas that fit their personal goals and principles. A fearful mentee may not trust herself to reject or adapt your advice. This changes the relationship from mentor to superior, a dangerous shift for both parties.
What to do about it
As a mentor, be on the lookout for fear at the outset. This may appear as a hesitancy to ask questions, continuous deference to you and your opinions or simply an apparent shyness. Confusingly, fear may also look like self-confidence. What better way to hide self-doubt than behind bluster and bravado?
If you sense apprehension or false bravado, often the best first step is to call it out. Acknowledge the fact you are older and more experienced and may feel intimidating. Often just getting this out in the open will begin to settle the nerves.
Be prepared to knock yourself off your pedestal. Professor David Clutterbuck refers to this as “minimising the power difference”. Help your mentee to understand that you are also human and have your own self-doubts. Invite your mentee into an open relationship, letting them know you don’t want your position to get in the way of a productive rapport.
Be patient and keep yourself off that pedestal as the relationship develops. Be willing to share your own mistakes and doubts. A little fallibility gives your mentee permission to be vulnerable. If bravado is a coping strategy, then your willingness to be vulnerable will eventually allow your mentee to shed her bluster.
The role of Program Managers
Mentee fear and intimidation are particularly prevalent when there is a large gap in experience and seniority between the mentor and mentee. Program Managers should bear this in mind during the matching process. Unless there’s a very good reason for it, avoid matching a recent university graduate with a CEO or senior manager. The bigger the real power difference, the harder it will be to minimise that difference and establish a relationship that will genuinely foster mentee development.
The upside for Mentors
The good news for mentors is that helping mentees to be at ease in the mentoring relationship reaps reward for both sides. Permission to be open, honest and vulnerable not only helps mentees to gain real personal growth, it also offers mentors a safe place to develop genuine leadership and coaching skills.
© Melissa Richardson 2018