anticipating mentoring disengagers

I’ve been working as an insider in research and academic staff mentoring programmes for a while now, and I’ve tried to anchor my work in the idea that mentoring is for any and all people who see a benefit to being part of the programme. There are also people for whom mentoring is not the right approach right now: perhaps it’s not the right time, maybe they haven’t got enough time to dedicate to such an involved form of development, or maybe they need a more specialist conversation (e.g. specific funding expertise, english language support, software training, careers service consultation, disability services, counselling services, HR specialists, occupational health etc). It’s my job to facilitate this understanding, and to signpost to alternative/complementary services.


Not signing up to the mentoring programme is therefore ok with me. Similarly I count it as a positive outcome if a potential mentee changes their mind after attending the induction session and decides that mentoring is just not what they thought, or not for them. Properly engaging people in their development is not about coercing them. No-one needs to be guilted into 3-6h critical career evaluation over a 6 month period.

So once we’ve got the people who want to be there engaged in the programme, it should be straightforward right? Hmmm, not so simple. Some thoughts on in-programme disengagement, learned the hard way through supporting mentees and supervising mentor practice. This is the unseen expertise involved in delivering mentoring programmes:

(1) My bad. I, as programme manager, matched the wrong two people together. Sometimes it happens. All I have to work with is what’s been declared on the mentoring matching form. To help your participants:

(i) Treat your matching form as a guided reflection for your participants, rather than designing one that’s ‘easy to administrate’. Create a document that helps participants sort their thoughts, articulate their career aspirations, and prepare their mentoring objectives.

(ii) Don’t chance it. First dibs on a match next time, is better than wasting time now with an inappropriate mentor.

(iii) Check your own assumptions. It’s good to have a matching buddy to add perspective. Just because I personally thrive on challenge and stretch, it doesn’t mean that that’s what all the mentees need.

(iv) Manage wish lists. A mentee with a long list of criteria for their ideal mentor is never going to be matched satisfactorily. Get back to the mentee and help them prioritise what matters most.

(2) Radio silence. A mentee applies, is matched, receives the welcome pack, and… never makes contact with the mentor. To help your participants:

(i) Make it clear from the outset whose responsibility it is to make first contact. If you ask me it should always be the mentee’s responsibility, it’s their development after all.

(ii) Help them know what to say, “…now please get in touch with your mentor, who is waiting to help you. No need to explain too much, a simple ‘hello, I’m your  mentee, when are you free?’ will do.”

(iii) Make sure mentees understand that they don’t need to impress their mentor and aren’t waiting until after, for example, their research paper is submitted (or other meaningful career landmark).

(iv) Send emails e.g. at the 4 week point, reminding mentees they should have met by now. Time flies!

(v) Understand that meeting a mentor may for some people represent a very uncomfortable facing up to the reality of a situation, or a change or transition that brings an emotional reaction. For others it may be the first time they’ve talked about themselves with a colleague. Help mentees understand that managing that transition with a supportive person, is better than avoiding the issue.

(3) No Return. After one meeting the mentee never requests another. There’s a simple answer to most 1-meeting wonders: the mentee got what they needed and moved forward. Don’t worry about this it’s a positive outcome! For others it may be more cryptic. To help your participants:

(i) Check in. Ask them if they got what they needed, help them optimise it if not by giving the mentor some guidance on what they want to work on next time.

(ii) Rematch them if it’s an unworkable partnership, and help them manage the closedown of the old partnership. i.e. they email the mentor and copy you in “Dear mentor, just to say thank you for the meeting, X and Y was helpful to me, Z not so much, and I’ve got what I wanted and I’m moving on now, bye.” By cc’ing you, they leave the door open for you to follow up with the mentor: “Dear mentor, I see this has ended, is there anything I can help you with?” Managed endings are important, especially if you want to retain your mentors!

(iii) Check their to do lists! Very commonly a mentee comes out of meeting one with a to do list that represents a 5-10 year career development plan. Remind them that they don’t have to achieve all the actions before meeting again. In fact if they haven’t been able to achieve any, it’s the ideal time to check in and reevaluate/reinvigorate.

(4) Silent treatment. A mentee physically attends meetings but doesn’t seem to be present. Maybe they don’t know what they want to talk about, or perhaps there’s long silences, or the mentee says “I don’t know” a lot. Perhaps they keep changing the subject away from the difficult issue. Maybe you get feedback that they ran out of things to say to each other.  To help your participants:

(i) Remind your mentors that silence is fine, it represents that the mentee is thinking. Allowing silence is a mentoring asset.

(ii) Mentoring-style conversations where one can be open and honest can represent a style some people aren’t used to – as trust builds so will the depth of the conversation.

(iii) Remind your mentees what they can do to prepare for mentoring, offer self-analysis tools they can use. Share these with mentors to help them get a mentee thinking reflectively (e.g. values-base exercises, stress drivers questionnaires etc etc etc).

(iv) Get mentors to check their power-privilege. If I ask my mentee what they think the best way to do [the thing I’m an expert in] is, I’m setting up the assumption there’s a right answer, and that I know it and would like them to guess it. Hence getting an embarrassed “I don’t know”. This is person-centred development, not Family Fortunes.

(v) The phrase “it looks like topic X is off limits for you, is that right?” can be useful in checking/acknowledging you’ve noticed deflection. Follow up with “So what would it be useful to focus on instead?”

Interested in attending or commissioning some short mentor skills development workshops that build practice in some of these areas? See here.

Image borrowed from this article on mentoring basics.

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