Healthy Mentor-Mentee Relationships

Effective mentoring is both an art and a skill that is sometimes confused with other types of relationships where the well-being of another person is the main focus. People who wish to become mentors generally have good intentions; however, if they are unaware of the key elements of mentoring, even good intentions can inadvertently provide the pavement for the pathway to hell. Mentors sometimes find themselves in situations where they confuse their roles with teachers, healers or even enablers. Knowing the distinctions among these roles is paramount to successful mentoring.

The Mentor

Like so many words in the English language, the word “mentor” has its origins in Greek mythology. It refers to an individual who communicates his or her expertise and wisdom with a less knowledgeable, and usually younger, colleague. The mentor—mentee relationship lasts until the latter masters a particular skill set, so the two may work together for a few months or a year or more. Their relationship is based on empowerment with the mentor acting as a guide and overseer, encouraging and allowing the mentee to take on an ever-larger role in practicing the skills she or he is mastering. The tone is friendly and supportive. Because the two are often peers, they may socialize but intimacy is not appropriate. The mentor is successful when the mentee no longer needs that guidance. The mentee then becomes part of the legacy the mentor is leaving to his or her profession.

The Teacher

To some people, this mentor description may sound like a teacher. Not quite. Teachers and mentors share the intention of imparting knowledge to another person, but the relationship and the process are very different. A teacher in a formal setting has undergone advanced, formal education and usually has to be credentialed by a state board. The interaction is generally guided by an approved lesson plan or set curriculum that has specific learning goals. Testing of the pupil determines the level of learning and those results may impact the teacher as well as the student. In the classroom setting, a teacher is responsible for discipline as well as instruction. The tone is defined by distinctive professional boundaries between the teacher and student. The relationship may be friendly but the two do not socialize. They are not peers. Physical intimacy is ethically forbidden. A mentor who begins thinking of himself as someone whose knowledge sets him apart from or puts him above his mentee has slipped into thinking of himself as a teacher.

One Who Seeks to Heal

A third type of role that mentors need to be aware of is that of one who seeks to heal. The healer is usually sought out when an individual needs assistance in recovering from some mental or physical issue. These types of healers are found in a variety of categories with the most common being:

  • Physicians
  • Faith-based or spiritual counselors
  • Psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists or social workers

The relationship between healer and patient may be a one-time visit or on-going and there is often an underlying belief that something in the patient is broken. While a mentor is unlikely to put himself into the role of physician to diagnose or treat a medical condition, he may begin seeing the mentee as having problems that the mentor must fix. If he inappropriately slips into the role of therapist, health or spiritual advisor, the central purpose of the relationship shifts from empowerment to repairing a broken person.

The Enabler

The fourth type of role to be considered in building a healthy mentor-mentee relationship is the enabler. By blaming someone else for an individual’s undesirable conduct, the enabler allows this person to avoid responsibility for his harmful actions. Thus, he can be unaware of the harm caused by his behavior and therefore sees no need to change. Enabling other people robs them of their self-power, the opposite of what a mentor does. While the enabler intends to help, his interactions with others result in perpetuating any problems another person may have. The enabler permits the other person to be unconscious of the effects of his behavior and oblivious to any consequences for that behavior. Enablers typically have poor boundaries and low self-esteem. When a mentor makes excuses for the mentee’s behavior and/or begins doing things for the mentee, he has taken on an enabler role disempowering the mentee.

The Power Dynamic

The area where there is the biggest difference among these four relationships lies with the power dynamic. The affiliation between mentor-mentee is based on empowerment. The mentor is an individual who is familiar and comfortable with exercising self-power and mastery of specific skills. Part of the mentor’s mission is to nurture this same state in the mentee. In the teacher-student relationship, power is held by the teacher because of his advanced learning and role as disciplinarian. While some teachers may have the goal of empowering students, this is not generally part of the curriculum. The healer-patient relationship can vary widely regarding the power aspect. Some healers empower their patients by instructing them in various methods of self-healing. Other healers such as psychiatrists and psychologists naturally assume power over patients because they are trained to diagnose and develop treatment plans for healing. If healers have tendencies toward arrogance, they are especially vulnerable to putting themselves in a judgmental power position over others. Enablers have a dysfunctional relationship with their own power and are incapable of empowering others. They often experience life from the victim end of the power continuum, a perspective that they pass on to others.

The Effective Mentor

Becoming an effective mentor requires awareness of each of these types of relationships in order to be clear about the role and mission of the mentor. One way for the mentor to remain clear about this role is to ask, “Is what I am about to do with my mentee empowering or depowering? Am I handing this person a fish or showing him where to get and how to use the right fishing equipment?” The answer to those questions can keep the relationship on track to being effective and empowering.

Definitions used in this article are derived from Wikipedia.

C Diane Ealy holds a Ph.D. in behavioral science. She specializes in the creative process and devotes her life to facilitating personal growth and empowerment. She is the author of five books including The Woman’s Book of CreativityThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Spirituality in the WorkplaceOur Money Ourselves and Your Creative Soul.