Changes in Mentoring During the Relationship

© 2003, Barry Sweeny


A Personal Favorite Form of Communication

During my four years as a mentor program coordinator I always loved the face-to-face interactions with the mentors. However, I also came to feel that my favorite next was the reflection and “conversation” which occurred between me and the mentor through “dialogue journals” which some of the mentors in our program kept.

A dialogue journal has the mentor reflect and write experiences and questions on the left page, leaving the right side open for the mentor program leader to write responses, ask questions to promote reflection, suggest options, offer encouragement, etc. Dialogue journals became my favorite interaction because they revealed so much about the process of mentoring and the evolution that mentors must undergo as they learn the “craft” and “art” of mentoring.  Click here to learn exactly how a dialogue journal works.

What follows is a description of what the use of those journals revealed about mentor growth. If you are mentor, these insights may be very helpful to your becoming a more effective mentor.

Mentor Growth Patterns Revealed

Of particular interest to me was the strong similarities in the feelings and the common patterns in the experiences which many mentors have expressed through their journals. Unfortunately, each mentor can rarely see these patterns in their own writing as they are “too close” to it to be objective. When I write back in a mentor’s journal it’s to help the mentor discover those emerging patterns which tell the story of a mentor’s development, reveal areas of challenge and suggest ways to improve their results.

Here are some of the patterns I have discovered in the mentoring process through the use of the dialogue journals.

The Pattern in the Early Months of Mentoring

Mentoring always seems to go quite well during the first few months. Proteges usually recognize how much they have to learn about their new jobs and so they are more willing to defer to the mentor’s judgment and experience. The mentors feel very purposeful and appreciated because they can easily share what they know and the proteges seem to both need and appreciate what is offered.

Mentoring in the early months can be time consuming but it is not especially challenging to plan or provide. It just takes a lot of time. Typical topics for mentoring new employees begin with “Where is the copier?” and range to “What expectations must I meet?” These are all questions which the mentor can anticipate, which is why they often end up on a mentoring Check List.

Mentoring seems easier when the mentor can predict the protege’s questions and when the mentor knows most of the answers. Mentor journals at this stage of the process are filled with comments which reflect the mentor’s feeling of worth and enthusiasm. Here’s some:

  • “This work is really important! I see major steps taken by my protege every week. I’m glad I agreed to be a mentor.”
  • “Mentoring has proven to be lots of work, but I am pleased at how much fun it is as well.”
  • “I am glad I decided to become a mentor. I have learned as much as my protege has.”

The Mid-Year Mentoring “Wall”

Just as marathon runners report “hitting a wall” at some point in a race, mentors often find a similar point is reached in the mentoring process. This period of struggle often comes near the end of the first 5-6 months after the relationship is established and the initial, easier learning has been accomplished. Look at some of the journal comments mentors have offered at the mid-year point:

  • “Ever since Christmas I have been having difficulty helping her. It’s hard because I want to do more but I’m not sure what to do.”
  • “I am having self-doubts, I can’t tell what she needs right now so I’m hesitant and not as confident.”
  • “I feel that I have become more of a friend than a mentor recently. Maybe he doesn’t need me as a mentor anymore.”

We have found that this less satisfying stage is to be expected. It is not automatic nor the experience of every mentor, but it seems to happen to many.

As the protege matures and gains the knowledge needed to accomplish basic tasks he or she is not as likely to continue asking for the same kind of help. Often the protege will also be asking fewer questions rather than seeking out the mentor each time an issue or concern arises. This may mean that mentoring pairs meet less frequently and spend less informal time together too. Their meeting times may become limited to just making “appointments” to get together.

Mentor Relationship Transitions

Whatever the changes are that mentors notice, these are usually natural transitions which result from the protege mastering “the easy stuff” and developing more self- confidence and professional understanding and maturity. If a mentor gradually finds it harder to offer help, or if mentors are asked fewer questions, this does NOT mean that the mentoring relationship is nearing the end. In fact, it is more than likely that mentors are needed more in this phase of growth than ever before!

The changes that a mentor senses are probably happening because the questions asked and the type of assistance that the protege needs becomes more sophisticated and complex with time. The issues the protege faces are less the “one right way” kinds of things, and become more a matter of professional judgment and interrelated effects. What is needed to respond appropriately is a shift in the mentor’s role to provide for the different needs emerging in the protege. The need is for the mentoring to become more intense because the issues and challenges are more complex and intense too.

An excellent example of the need for mentors to periodically refocus their attention was offered in a mentors’s journal. The mentor had realized that the protege’s questions had changed from only asking “What do we need to do next?” (a short term answer is required) to asking questions like, “How can I fit all the work in before the deadline?” Answering the more complex question requires teaching the protege a decision making process that is more difficult but which is going to be much more useful to the protege over the long term.

What proteges at this point must learn, and what mentors must begin to teach now is:

  • How to persist and work through complex problems;
  • How to research and then make informed decisions in logical steps;
  • How to think strategically and see the effects later of earlier decisions and behaviors;
  • How to reflect on the extent to which what we decide to do today takes us where we want to go;
  • How to adjust what we are doing, as we are doing it, to become more effective.

Notice, these questions are not about just the protege learning tasks. They are about doing tasks well, so the results of the task are significant, useful, and of quality. These are, of course, MAJOR issues and are why a mentor’s help for a protege at this stage is so crucial!

Some Mentoring Options

If you have experienced a similar change in your interactions as a mentor and protege pair you may find one of the following options to be helpful:

1. Proteges often reach a point where they feel too embarrassed to keep asking questions. Perhaps the protege has changed from just asking you specific questions to making statements which are an expression of concerns. This change will probably require that you not wait for a question to respond to, but rather that you “hear” the concern and appropriately read within it the “call for help”.

Refer to the Stages of Concern component of the Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM) for ideas on how to hear and diagnose the needs implied by the concerns the protege expresses. The CBAM will also help you target your mentoring response at the specific need and help the protege get beyond it to a higher level of performance. THAT is a biggie!

2. Perhaps the protege believes that you are tired of all the questions or that you are too busy for the protege to keep “bugging” you. You can put that concern to rest by saying something like:

  • “I enjoy discussing our work together so much. I hope that you will continue to feel free to ask me any questions that you think of.”
  • “I am glad that you feel free to ask me questions and to discuss what we do in our work. I find our discussions so stimulating, and I find I am learning a lot too.”

If neither of the above statements fit how you feel, just be direct and ask…

  • “I have looked forward to meeting today. What questions have you thought of recently?” or, “What concerns do you have?”

If that question does not provoke protege questions on which to focus, try to be more specific.

  • “What have you been thinking about..(add the topic you suspect is or could be an area of need)?”

As your protege develops, so also must your mentoring relationship evolve and your mentoring style adjust to the needs of the protege. While your role as a source of information will decrease, issues of greater significance will emerge and your experience and insights as an employee will become a valuable resource to the protege.

The earlier mentoring work was more about helping your protege survive.

The work now is all about helping the protege thrive.