Trust Building in Mentoring

By Barry Sweeny

Mentoring requires a safe, confidential environment for professional growth to occur. Few novice or junior employees will risk looking foolish in front of a mentor or any other experienced employee who might help them UNTIL a safe, trusting context for that risk-taking is established.

Trust takes time, sometimes a long time to build. It is done by a mentor who models the behaviors listed below and who invites the protege to adopt these same behaviors. But trust must be earned by demonstrating that we are trust-worthy, and do not disappoint.

In the beginning of a mentoring partnership, before trust has been developed, we agree to 100% confidentiality. We use that “rule” because it helps create the needed, emotionally safe, risk-taking environment that promotes sharing of awkwardness, mistakes, even foolishness, all for the sake of learning and improvement. During this time we consciously work to build trust.

After we have developed trust, the pair may or may not venture into areas which it would not have earlier, such as sharing by agreement outside their own relationship – so confidentiality can become less important, but only by mutual agreement.

Here are the critical elements of such a trusting relationship, which have been adapted from Judith Warren Little.

PAIRS work to build their skills
MENTORS create a low-risk setting & use open questions to lead inquiry

PAIRS build trust through consistent use of predictable criteria & methods
MENTORS are as clear about criteria and methods as is the protege on work strategies and methods which are goals for learning


PAIRS defer to one another’s skill and knowledge, and preserve each others’ dignity
MENTORS are willing to grow, honor the experience of the protege, & work at least as hard as a mentor as the protege is


PAIRS deliberately use shared ideas and language in communications
MENTORS lead in using terms and ideas that create shared meaning

PAIRS select 1-2 questions or problems to explore and to build skill around
MENTORS lead in keeping focused and purposeful, they link data & topic

PAIRS select/invent observation tools that fit the purpose & use the data to explore topics & generate conclusions
MENTORS value adequate data, & work hard to be thorough when collecting it