A 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:
- Toxic Mentors: 5 Warning Signs Your Relationship is Heading South, by Dee McCrorey, July 28, 2008
- Twelve Habits of the Toxic Mentor, by David Clutterbuck
What Is a Good Mentor?
You 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.
- 5 Qualities To Look For In A Mentor, by Erika Andersen, September 29, 2014
- What Should You Look For in a Mentor?, by Marie G. McIntyre, Ph.D, Your Office Coach
- 4 Ingredients for Successful Mentoring Relationships, by Stephanie Vozza, December 12, 2012
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?