Building and Maintaining Effective Mentoring Relationships

This post is the second in a series on mentoring. Our first post discussed why mentoring is a critical factor in academic and career success. Whether inside or outside of academia, mentoring relationships are some of the most efficient and effective ways of quickly gaining the skills and background needed to flourish.

Whether you are seeking to build a new mentoring relationship, or seeking to reinvigorate a current one, there are a few key elements to consider. Attending to these elements can contribute to a strong foundation for a responsive, mutually beneficial, and effective mentoring relationship.

Mutual Expectations

All mentor/mentee relationships come with implicit expectations. If these expectations have not been stated openly, this simply means that both sides of the dyad are having to doing more work to “guess” what these expectations are. Further, because the dynamics of most mentoring relationships are asymmetrical, it is often left to the mentee to “figure out” their mentor’s expectations.

It is therefore best for mentees to seek out opportunities to openly discuss and establish mutual expectations. There are three main areas that should be covered; these can be part of a formal “mentoring agreement” or simply serve as the basis for a frank discussion.

  • Mentor responsibilities
  • Mentee responsibilities
  • Shared responsibilities

Part of this discussion of mutual expectations should include meeting frequency, preferred communication method and style, and the setting of short, medium, and long-term goals. Setting goals can help to keep the relationship moving in productive directions, even while studies have shown that accomplishing these goals produces a positive feedback loop that contributes to the health and longevity of mentoring dyads.

Negotiating the Relationship

Part of maintaining healthy mentoring relationships also entails setting and respecting healthy boundaries. Mentors do hold the superior status in the dyad and should take responsibility for initiating adjustments. However, mentees do have the important role in communicating when things are not working as they should be.

It is important to establish the nature of your relationship with your mentor. Several questions to consider include:

  • How close is too close?
  • What separation should there be between work and life?
  • How much information should you share?

A good rule of thumb is to center the professional nature of your relationship. As such, it can be helpful to share personal information that might directly bear on your work: e.g., a serious illness or family-related obligations. This can also serve as a guide for the social boundaries of your interactions.

Maintaining Open Communication

Another critical aspect of maintaining healthy mentoring relationships is keeping open lines of communication. This can include revising expectations when necessary, being open about obstacles or challenges to your work, and sharing good news or achievements. While openness can take time to develop, it should be the goal of any mentoring relationship.

While mentee autonomy is the ultimate goal of mentoring, even when this is achieved clear and honest communication forms a basis for mutual respect. If communication is becoming a trouble area for your mentoring relationship, it may be time to escalate to conflict resolution. Knowing when and how to engage in conflict resolution will be the topic of our next post, so stay tuned.

Final Thoughts

The most successful mentoring relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect and mutual benefit. Some of the most rewarding aspects of being a mentor include helping mentees to achieve their goals, being appreciated for their efforts, and being included in both solving problems and in sharing mentee “wins.” Working toward open communication within the healthy boundaries set by mutual expectations will help to ensure a rewarding and effective mentoring experience. It is never too early, or too late, to consider having an open conversation with your mentor about mutual expectations.

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