Minority Interests

The Often Ignored Problem with Mentors

January 1, 2014 4 Comments

Getting a mentor is difficult at the best of times, a good mentor is even harder to find. There is some truth in the saying that you don’t choose a mentor, a mentor chooses you. Why? A mentor often sees something of themselves in you and wants to nurture you in a way that lets you benefit from their experience. Mentorship programmes are regularly cited as key to helping minority ethnic professionals to succeed in the workplace but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road.

Benefits of Mentoring

The word mentor is derived from a character from Greek mythology and implies a relationship between a young person and an older and wiser individual who helps them navigate through a field in which the senior person is experienced.  The benefits of mentoring are well established; research shows that people with mentors tend to have higher salaries and greater levels of career satisfaction. They are more likely to be committed to their careers and have increased rates of promotion.

Mentoring: An Ambiguous Experience

In her influential book, Mentoring at work Professor Kathy Kram of Harvard Business School challenged the idea that mentoring was always a positive experience and that it was freely available for those who wanted it. She also identified the primary functions of mentoring relationships: career development and psychosocial support.

Career Development Support

These are aspects of a relationship that enhance advancement in an organisation. I like to think of it as the more technical aspects of any career. This includes coaching, providing the protégé with exposure and visibility as well as protecting them from any damaging contact within the organisation. A crucial part of career development support that I don’t think gets discussed enough is the introduction of challenging assignments. It’s not enough to just do your job to progress. A mentor will help to provide assignments that provide learning opportunities for the protégé. This makes a real difference, being stretched, receiving critical feedback in a safe environment.

Psycho Social Support

In contrast to career development support, psychosocial support enhances an individual’s sense of competence and identity. This part of the relationship extends beyond career advancement and is more intimate. It includes friendship and counselling, an overall more personal connection. Through psychosocial support a protégé can share their doubts and concerns about their work or their career. When received this can be encouraging and develop trust. The benefits of psychosocial support generally carry over to other aspects of life.

True Mentorship

A true mentor relationship contains both career development and psychosocial support.  When there is only career development support this is known as a Sponsorship relationship. You will recognise this from work, you know when you have a line manager who doesn’t really care about you. They just go through the motions and talk about your development as part of the appraisal process? If this sounds like your boss, then you have a sponsorship relationship. If you have no career development support then I guess you’ve got a good friend!

Despite all the obvious benefits, the problem with having a mentor is that they have so much of the power in the relationship. You rely on them to share their knowledge with you, put you forward for high profile work assignments and campaign for your promotion. As a protégé you are often a subordinate at the mercy of a mentor, relying on them to secure your future.

Mentors benefit too

It’s worth noting that mentors are acting in their own interests. Having a successful protégé does no harm to the reputation of a mentor. It also provides an opportunity to pass on their wisdom and they can get respect for their capabilities.

The Risk to Mentors

Having a protégé comes with an element of risk. Mentorship relationships are not usually short and so mentors can be expected to be choosy about who they take under their wing. They want to back a winner that will make them look good too. Providing both career development and psychosocial support will require some effort on their part. It will help if they really like the protégé and can gel with them easily. Professions like accountancy and law are led by people who are white, male and middle class. It may be less risky for them to take on the guy from a similar background that went to the same University than the smart Turkish guy from Haringey or the witty asian girl from Tower Hamlets.

Outdated Model

Professor Belle Rose Ragins of the Lubar School of Business acknowledged that a lot of the mentorship models are based on white males and that outcomes associated with these models may not transfer to other demographic groups. Research has shown that minorities struggle to enjoy the benefits of a mentoring relationship. This is because differences in ethnicity between the mentor and protégé may act as a barrier for a minority ethnic protégé.  In particular the research shows that minority ethnic professionals struggle to get psychosocial support from a mentor. This means many of us are dealing with the line manager that doesn’t care enough about us to provide the crucial psychosocial element.

To be attractive to a mentor you need to signal to potential mentors that you are a high potential individual with low risk to their reputation. This creates an incentive for the mentor. However you shouldn’t rely on a single mentor to solve all of your career problems, it’s important to develop the relationship you have to get as much support as you can but thinking more dynamically can help you in your career. It may be useful to cultivate a network of developmental relationships

Do you have a mentorship relationship where you receive both career development and psychosocial support?

Has coming  from a different background to a mentor figure ever caused you problems or was it a benefit?

Leave a comment to share your experiences


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  1. RButler February 2, 2014 at 2:28 AM

    I can say that as an American Woman who happens to be a doc that most of my mentors have been white American men, as (at that time anyway) there were very few women and/or African- American male or female). There were some Black men who were influential in my training, but never in my career advancement unfortunately. Most were (had to be) ‘company men’ so to speak for obvious reasons. As a Black women and a bit of an idealist, the likelihood of having a role model who resemble me simply wasn’t a reality.

    As a result, when I’d explain my grandiose idealistic notions of what I thought medicine might look like in the future, I’d get from other ‘minorities’ (an unfair label for Black men and all women in medicine given our volume, so quoted), ‘we’re just good to be here.’

    When I shared the same notions with my cohorts who were white, male, seasoned, and typically in a position of means, they’d almost invariably give me the means and a challenge to give birth to the vision.

    I believe that if Black docs had access to those same resources, they would have done the same. But for Black docs (male or female) and most female docs- they were simply in survival mode, and not in opportunities to lend support on a higher level. All that said, those same docs were excellent in their support and motivation, and in teaching, training, and encouraging each of use to become our best.

  2. Nkosi February 2, 2014 at 2:32 AM

    This point of view on professional discrimination is realistic. We all know (especially professionals of color) that “professional” discrimination exists. However, I think it’s a bit more complicated than simply ethnic/racial bias. Both race and ethnicity camouflage often deep cultural history, attitudes, and habits of work and life. Western civilization of course is a profit-model socio-economic construct.

    At least to me, the relevant question is whether or not we (minorities) can and should fully participate in it…?

    Great Blog!

    Peaceful My Friend,

  3. Rbutler February 2, 2014 at 2:33 AM

    @Nkosi: Capitalism at it’s best!!! I do believe that your are absolutely right!
    Can we fully participate though, even if we wanted to (though I think most of us would say that we really don’t want to though we may want the options).

    I don’t think either parties desires our full participation…. I think that here in the US we’ve always created our own worlds/businesses/systems. Now that this fact still involved capitalism, and the impact of that structure onto itself, is a whole other story (but I’m the one who’s taken my medical practice off- grid while moonlighting in the direct antithesis of what I believe on every level- even as an idealist out of necessity. The degree to which we all end up ‘doing what we gotta do until we can do what we wanna do- if we ever dare stand in that ultimate vision…. ). Just my thoughts.

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