How To Recognize and Avoid Toxic Mentors


MP900302921A regular reader suggested recently that I write about toxic mentoring. I’ve been interested in mentoring programs for over twenty years now. Throughout my career I’ve had good mentors and not so good mentors (meaning they weren’t really mentors at all, but thought they were). But I’m not sure I’ve ever had a “toxic” mentor, so I had to give this topic some thought before writing.

What Is a Toxic Mentor?

In my view, a toxic mentor is one who makes you feel worse about yourself and your career, rather than better. It isn’t just that this person doesn’t help you, it’s that he or she actively makes things worse. Confusing or bad advice. More interested in themselves than in you. More like a parent than a coach—they control rather than teach.

Here are a couple of articles with good descriptions of toxic mentors:

What Is a Good Mentor?

MP900341467You may not be able to recognize toxicity in mentoring relationships in advance, just like you can’t always recognize it in a friendship or romantic relationship. So it is best to tiptoe into finding a mentor. And get recommendations from other people of who has helped them.

I think the best thing to look for in a mentoring relationship is mutuality—mutual respect, mutual honesty, mutual desire to get something out of the relationship. If you don’t have this type of reciprocity, you cannot build a good relationship.

My favorite article about finding a good mentor was published in Forbes. What I like about it is the emphasis on someone who is self-reflective, curious, and generous. Most articles don’t focus on these traits. But if a mentor does not know himself or herself through self-reflection, he or she is not going to be very good at helping you assess yourself. And curiosity and generosity are two excellent traits to look for in any coach or friend.

Here are some good articles on what to look for in a mentoring relationship.

How Can You Avoid Toxic Mentors?

Maybe the reason I haven’t personally been zapped by a toxic mentor is that I’ve never relied on one person to mentor me in all things. There were senior attorneys who taught me how to practice law. There were older women who’d successfully raised children while working in demanding jobs many years before I did, whether they were more senior to me in the organization or junior. There were women I admired as people who could be effective without aping how male executives operated. I needed them all to develop my career the way I wanted to.

And there were some things for which I had no mentor, just good bosses and trusted colleagues to help me muddle through.

Still, there are a few suggestions I can offer about how to avoid negative mentoring relationships:

1. Enter the relationship slowly. So many times, mentors are assigned, or the mentor’s role in the organization makes the relationship seem necessary, yet the personalities of mentor and protege simply don’t mesh. If your mentor isn’t helping you, then build other relationships that can get you what is missing in the first mentoring relationship.

2. Have goals for both the mentor and the protege. Ideally, the mentor can learn from the protege as well. That way, the relationship is not as needy.

3. Don’t expect one person to “fix” you or your career. In fact, don’t expect a multitude of mentors to be your savior. Recognize that your work and your personality are what will get you ahead. Mentors can only help you avoid the minefields.

What has been the best help or advice you ever received from a mentor?

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3 Comments

Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

3 responses to “How To Recognize and Avoid Toxic Mentors

  1. Thank you so much for addressing my questions Sara! You really hit the nail on the head in saying, “Confusing or bad advice. More interested in themselves than in you. More like a parent than a coach—they control rather than teach.” The would-be mentors I’ve encountered tended to embody this – being self-absorbed and into mentoring because they wanted to talk about themselves… coming off as patronizing and lacking in mutual respect. Particular people I’ve known who wanted to mentor me and didn’t know me well also tended to regard and treat me according to Gen Y stereotypes (when in fact, I’m a decade too old to be among the oldest members of Gen Y).

    What I’ve also found, corroborating other information on toxic mentors online, is that they seem to have all the time in the world to chase a potential mentee down – and this leads me to question if the would-be mentors have anything else going on in their lives. Since I’m not working within an organization and am living project-to-project instead of paycheck-to-paycheck, I’ve found these would-be mentors are long-term unemployed older folks (who’re not busying trying to form a business or be self-employed) who are:

    (1.) seeking to busy themselves (to get away from facing their own problems) by making another person their project… or even worse,
    (2.) interested in USING their mentee to try to solve their problem. (I’ve had someone who I rejected as mentor try to get me to do last-minute menial tasks for him on the side that were unrelated to the consulting group work we’re both a part of.) This is NOT to say one can’t learn anything from older, long-term unemployed individuals. However, if they’re trying to avoid their own problems or trying to use you, that’s a red flag to me.

    Since I’m slow-to-trust, fiercely independent-minded, and don’t mind the bumps and scrapes involved with learning life’s lessons on my own (though I do have a few individuals I can look to for bouncing my thoughts off of), I haven’t fallen into a toxic mentoring situation. However, I find I encounter sketchy would-be mentors who throw themselves at me quite a bit perhaps because of where I am in life right now. Sorry for the long comment (damn it’s almost a blog post!) but just had some insights to add. Thanks again for giving me your perspective and valuable pointers!

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