When mentoring malfunctions

Mentoring’s one of the standard activities that you’ll come across in the information profession. We’re very caring and sharing like that, wanting to support people in their professional development.

As you start your career as an information professional, you’ll regularly hear the advice: get a mentor.
Or, as you advance in your career and seem to be doing well, you’ll be advised to become a mentor.

This is fine: yes, both being mentored and being a mentor can be excellent relationships, and very useful for both parties involved. But…..mentoring relationships are like any other relationships: they can go wrong. And they can go wrong in a whole lot of ways.

I’ve heard of mentors and mentees whose relationships have malfunctioned due to mismanagement, wrong focus, disinterest, and inappropriate behaviour. Like any other relationship, bullying and abuse can happen in mentor/mentee arrangements, but it can be very difficult for the participants to escape the relationship.

However, this seems to be the side of mentoring that isn’t ever discussed. There’s plenty of guidance and information out there to help you with finding a mentor, or to help you to get involved as a mentor, and to tell you how positive a relationship it will be. But there seems to be no guidance for when either the mentor or mentee want to go their separate ways. There’s also no discussion (other than in whispered asides, or confidential chats with trusted contacts) that identifies those participants in mentoring relationships who should really not be allowed to participate in any others due to their actions. This can leave those who’re stuck in a bad relationship feeling that it’s their fault that it’s not working, as it seems to work well for everyone else.

So, what are your options if, as a mentor or mentee, your relationship isn’t working? Well…you can confront the person causing the problems, and get the issues out into the open. That might work, but it might also blow up in your face, and cause all sorts of further problems. So it doesn’t seem that direct confrontation is the best way to manage failing relationships. Additionally, if you’re a mentee you’re often in a position of vulnerability – your mentor is likely to be further advanced in their career, has a lot of professional contacts, and will be well respected. You might feel you won’t be believed if you tell anyone about the issues. As a mentor, you may feel that others will think you’ve let down your mentee if the relationship isn’t working, and it could impact on your professional standing.

I don’t have a solution for this problem, but please feel free to leave comments and make suggestions of your own. Have you been in a bad mentoring relationship yourself? What would you suggest could help when problems arise? Do we need more involvement from professional mentoring scheme arrangers, maybe by creating compulsory review points during mentoring arrangements, when participants can step back from/leave the relationship, with no explanation needed? Should there be some professional penalty for abuse of mentoring schemes? Should there be a whistleblowing option for these schemes, so vulnerable participants can flag up the actions of the other participant, and trigger a review from the scheme arranger?

How can participants in mentoring relationships get out of them when they go wrong, and how can people who are acting inappropriately in a variety of ways in mentoring relationships be prevented from continuing to do damage?

Thingee eleventyone – mentals, and mentaling

It’s time to talk about mentals (or mentors, if we’re being awffy formal).

I’ve been mentored a-plenty, both formally and informally, and now I’m even starting to do a little bit of the mentoring stuff myself. So how has it all worked out for me?

The unofficial mentors
In my previous workplace, I worked as part of a team of five staff in an institutional members-only law library, and effectively had a substantial period of apprenticeship to my boss, who spent at least a year supervising the VERY steep learning curve I had to go on. It was mainly her who ended up being the person showing me where things were kept; explaining how those things related to each other; how she’d figured out where an answer might be found for an enquiry we’d received; introducing me to other legal information professionals; and answering the many random and stupid questions I came up with. She also encouraged me to be active in both CILIP, and the group representing Scottish legal information professionals, the Scottish Law Librarians Group. I learned a helluva lot in my years there, mainly through the patient guidance of my boss, and I feel lucky that I had the chance to work in a a great team, with someone who was determined that I should develop professionally, even if that progress meant eventually leaving their team to find new opportunities.

Then, there’s my current boss, who’s had to take me from working in an institutional law library, to working in a commercial law library. The demands of a commercial law firm are very different to an institutional library, and so there I was on the steep learning curve…again. And once again, I’ve benefited from having a manager who doesn’t regard any of my questions as daft (even when they are), never points out the fact that sometimes I can be mind-numbingly stupid, and gives me the leeway to investigate areas and developments that interest me. This mentoring relationship has been different from my previous one, as my current role involves me working in a different office to my boss, so almost all of our contact is through numerous emails and phone calls. Although stressful at first (this went along the lines of having to suppress the urge to yell “Arghghhgh – stop asking me questions like I’m an expert, on areas I don’t know anything about!” when people asked me research questions on topics I’d never even heard of in the five years I’d spent in my previous workplace,) this has actually been beneficial to me, as I can refer back to the emails we have exchanged if I need to, and I’ve had to develop the skill of outlining issues clearly in writing when trying to discuss any complex research I’m asking her for help on, which has helped when I then have to write a clear and readable response to enquiries from users. And although I’m perfectly capable of doing the research my users ask me to do, knowing that I can phone my boss and just talk things through is a great help – I tend to be able to understand things better once I’ve chatted to someone about them, it seems to sort things out in my head a bit better! She’s totally committed to involvement and improvement in the wider library profession (to the point of taking on an insane workload for herself, on top of her full time job), and she’s also unfailingly determined to support me in any professional activity I decide to undertake, and uses our internal appraisal system to integrate activities such as Chartership and Revalidation into my core work objectives. So, all in all, she’s pretty handy as a mentor, official or not!

In addition to my workplace mentors, I’ve recently gained myself a non-employer-related mentor, in the delightful form of Bethan Ruddock, and our work together on a co-mentoring wiki, set up in order to prepare ourselves for Revalidation (public version here). Beth is helping me to track my professional development activities as I go along, rather than the prevous approach of: me doing stuff; me forgetting what I did it; me not reflecting on what I did or didn’t gain from it at the time; and me scrabbling about to try and remember what I did, and why.
In return, I’m doing the same for Beth. Despite only having met once for a few hours in a pub (you may begin to see a theme developing here in regards to my professional development activity venues…), we get on well, and are able to gently guide each other in the right direction in regards to creating the evidence to prove that we’re proper, Revalidatory professionals 🙂

The official one
When I decided to begin my Chartership, I begged/bullied/demanded/did sad puppy eyes in order to persuade lmrlib, a fellow law librarian, to do the Mentor training course in order to be my mentor. I felt I needed someone within the same professional sector in order for them to better understand how a Chartership fitted into my role, and already knowing each other meant that I felt we’d be able to work together well. We took a slightly-less-formal-than-may-be-usual approach to our meetings (A.K.A. we met in various pubs after work…well, a girl’s gotta eat, right?), but it seemed to work out pretty well for us. We’d work together to set targets for things to be done by me, and dates for them to be done by, go over the materials I’d collated up to that point, and discuss what gaps needed to be filled. As she was a friend, I didn’t want to let her down (or discover how truly awful and lazy I really am), so I’d make an extra effort to ensure I was up to date and sorted for our meetings. It also meant I could take any potential criticism a bit less personally, as we could joke about things rather than me thinking a total stranger had judged me, and found me to be a bit rubbish.
That was a pretty successful approach for me!

What did they get from the relationship? And what did I get?
Well, hopefully my bosses have had the benefit of an employee who’s been enthusiastic, keen to learn, and perhaps been able to give something useful back to them, in terms of developing new tools or processes in the workplace.
My “official” mentor has had the chance to see if she really wants to be a powerful megalomaniac, imposing her evil will on powerless underlings (judging from how she managed our relationship, that’d be a definite no).
My un-official un-work mentor has had the dubious benefit of me mentoring her, as she mentors me…

For me, I’ve gained skills, benefited from others experience and knowledge, and have learned various ways of working in order to find one that suits me…yup – having a mentor’s great!