The Hidden Pitfalls of Mentoring

Psychologist Lillian Eby discusses what can go wrong -- and often does -- including mentors who steal their protégés' thunder or just plain neglect them

The idea that you should plant yourself at the feet of a mentor if want to get ahead is conventional wisdom among young corporate go-getters. But before you seek out a mentor, consider what you could be getting into. That's the advice of Lillian Eby, an industrial and organizational psychologist who has studied mentoring and warns that sometimes it can go badly awry.

Eby, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, has devoted several years to examining what she calls "negative mentoring experiences." Last year, in a study co-written with several other researchers, she reported on the less-than-satisfactory encounters 84 employees had with mentors at least once in their careers. Some respondents complained of mentors who were difficult to talk to or overly critical of other employees. Other "protégés" pinpointed more serious issues, such as mentors with a drinking problem that interfered with work. And a chunk of employees mentioned relationships that had turned cutthroat, complaining of mentors who blamed protégés for their own mistakes or pulled rank to get what they wanted.

In a second study to be published later this year in Group and Organization Management, a peer-reviewed journal, Eby and co-writer Tammy Allen, also an industrial/organizational psychologist and an assistant professor at University of South Florida, look at another group of 242 protégés. More than half (55%) reported that mentors had neglected them at least occasionally and almost two-thirds (65%) said mentors had taken credit for the protégé's work. Indeed, 16% said this had occurred frequently. And almost a third reported at least some degree of sabotage by a mentor.

Eby says she isn't trying to discourage mentoring, which she thinks is "generally speaking, a good thing." Rather, she urges a more tempered view of the practice, a realization that "it might not be good all the time." Recently BusinessWeek Online writer Pamela Mendels spoke with Eby about the pitfalls of mentoring. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How often does a bad mentoring experience occur?


Of the protégés we obtained information from, over half reported at least one negative mentoring experience across their careers. We were surprised it was that common.

Q: What did you find in your first study?


We found that there were a variety of negative experiences that tended to cluster into several categories. Some had to do with a poor fit between the mentor and protégés, a mismatch in people's personalities, values, or work styles. Others had to do with mentors who were not technically or interpersonally skilled or who neglected the protégé -- didn't pay any attention to them.

The third category was a bit more shocking and dealt with mentors who engaged in antisocial behavior with protégés. They manipulated their protégé for personal gain, or they deceived their protégé or wielded power inappropriately. Within the different types of negative experiences, the frequency does vary: Things like sabotage tend to be much less common than problems related to mismatch.

Q: When protégés said they had been sabotaged, did they describe how?


One example was a situation in which, because the mentor didn't like where the protégé had gotten his or her degree, the mentor provided a negative evaluation.

Q: How about "credit-taking"?


Credit-taking has to do with a mentor who presents [the protégé's work] as his or her own. This could be a serious problem, because one of the primary functions that a mentor is supposed to serve -- to provide exposure and visibility to a protégé within the organization -- is being stymied.

Q: How common was it for a mentor to fail to delegate responsibilities appropriately?


Not that common. The more common experience had to do with mismatches and, surprisingly, neglect: mentors who seemed completely disinterested, [who] provided no feedback, [who were] evasive when protégés needed support and guidance, or who excluded protégés from important meetings. It seems counter to what we think of as mentoring.

Q: What did you find in the second study?


We looked at the extent to which protégés who have negative experiences also report lower job satisfaction or a higher intention to leave the organization or higher stress. And we found that negative mentoring does appear to influence all three.

We [also] found that the effect of negative mentoring was more pronounced if the relationship had been developed formally [by an employer]. There may be a couple of reasons why. One might be that [because] formal mentoring tends to be very visible in organizations, it may be much more difficult for a protégé to end a bad relationship.

Q: What advice would you give to a person who wants to find a mentor?


Go into the relationship with realistic expectations and understand that a mentor is not going to solve all of your career problems, but should provide guidance and be available to be leaned on. Try to ask around the organization: Who has had a good track record of being a mentor? One thing we know is that people mentor for different reasons. Some do it for recognition and other incentives from the organization. Others just because they're altruistic. It follows that if you can identify people who want to help others, their motives may be more aligned with the protégés'.

Q: Is there a nonmessy way to end a mentoring relationship, if the protégé feels it's not going well?


There don't appear to be a lot of good solutions. One thing the employer can do is have mechanisms in place for a protégé to go to someone in human resources -- or someone who is not the mentor -- to discuss the problems.

The other thing is [for the employer to avoid setting up the relationship] as contractual. A lot of formal mentoring programs are set up with goals and timelines: This relationship lasts six months or nine months. One way to ease the pressure would be to make it more open-ended, giving people the opportunity to move in and out.

Q: What advice would you give to a business setting up a formal mentoring program?


One suggestion would be to ensure that there's a really good match between the mentor and the protégé. Often, formal programs are based on random matching, or matching people based on functional area or background. Our research suggests that whatever you can do to make matching happen more informally could help. Another would be to provide performance monitoring so there are checks in place if [things] go wrong.

One also has to make sure that both parties have realistic expectations. [You can't] expect a mentoring relationship to be wonderful all the time. Mentors have lives. Mentors have careers. They may not be able to allocate the time necessary to the protégé. They might not be able to always look out for the protégé's best interest. It's important for both parties to realize that, like any relationship, mentoring relationships are going to have their ups and downs.