Trying to Avoid Mismatches

By Barry Sweeny, 2003


It’s Not as Frequent a Problem as You May Think

In my four years as a mentoring program coordinator I worked with more
than 160 mentors and only once did I experience the problem of an inappropriate
person who wanted to become a mentor. I believe this success was because of
the inclusive approach to mentor selection and matching strategies which I have
described elsewhere that we used. My extensive experience since that time has
born out this hypothesis. Matches that are proactively and thoughtfully made
are quite successful and anticpatng and proactively working to avoid mismatches results in  very few of them.

Interestingly, it was in this same specific case mentioned in the first sentence
of this article, that I discovered the value of the mismatch strategy I want to share.
This strategy is a vital companion to the more inclusive approaches to mentor selection,
but it should be done in every program regardless of selection methods used.

The Best Practice Mismatch Strategy

Ending a mentoring relationship prematurely can be a traumatic and hurtful “lose-lose”
experience for everyone involved if it is not properly handled. Here are the
FOUR steps that I have found helps avoid the problem altogether. Then, if these steps do not resolve the problem, those on the “Dealing With Mismatches” page will make it work as positively as can be expected for everyone involved.

1. Set Yourself Up for Success BEFORE Problems Occur

A. Point out when you ask a person to be a mentor, and again in the initial mentor
training, that mentor-protege matching is an inexact science.

You do not know much about the real needs of a new employee at the point at which they are just hired and a mentor is assigned to them. If the protégé is an existing employee, the program is in a better position to make an excellent and appropriate match, but even then, mistakes can happen.

B. Explain that it is reasonable to assume that, as more is learned about the needs of the protégé that, in some few cases, it will become clear that the wrong match was made and it is no one’s fault.

Explain that the program has a “no-fault divorce” policy because it is primarily focused on effectively addressing the needs of the protégé. If what was planned does not address those needs, a new match makes good common sense.

C. Point out that this does not (it really doesn’t) mean that a mentor is a bad mentor. It is assumed that all mentors are strong employees. What is DOES MEAN is that the mentor’s strengths were not those needed by this specific protege

D. It is also assumed that all proteges will be open to mentoring and defer somewhat to the experience and wisdom of their mentor. If this is not the case, the need for the protege to do so and avoid painful trial and error learning can often help. If not, a new match may help and the change would be more about the protégé than it is about the mentor.

E. Repeat the same message to protégés at the time when they are told they will have a mentor and when the proteges are together at any orientation meetings.

F. Be sure to emphasize that there will be a “Mismatch check” with everymentoring pair. This is vital so that if it becomes necessary to discuss a mismatch, the people will not feel “singled out”.

G. Also, point out what is said in the next section about how conflicts are not necessarily bad, since they can lead to learning and improvement.

Conflicts are a natural result of putting diverse people together and asking them to work as partners. This should not be avoided as it reflects the whole world. If a mentoring pair can work through conflicts by valuing how diverse they and their strengths are, the richness of their different view points, background, and experience, THEN they can LEARN a great deal more from each other, precisely because they are NOT thinking the same way. Seen from this perspective, differences ARE a strength, not a weakness of any relationship.

2. DON’T Use Deficit Language

When discussing the mismatch, use THAT specific term, “MISmatch”. Also, place the responsibility for the problem in the rightful place, on the PROGRAM, the ones who made the match.

Do not describe the situation with any of the following language:

  • Bad match
  • Poor match

These terms can be perceived as placing the BLAME on PEOPLE, (which is to be avoided).

3. Expect and Try to Resolve Conflicts as They Surface

When a mentor and protégé are not working well together, it is not necessarily time to dissolve and remake a match. Conflicts are a part of all human relationships. AND, the goal is NOT to avoid conflicts!!

Conflicts can be productive opportunities, IF they are handled very carefully. Conflicts can lead to terrific dscoveries and spurts of learning for the partners.

Basically, a conflict is a disagreement, and not every disagreement need be fatal to a mentor-protege relationship. Also, LEARNING how to better resolve conflicts is a valuable process in itself.

Although a supervisor may become involved at this point, the lead should be taken by a mentoring program coordinator who should use effective mentoring strategies to try to facilitate resolution of the problem(s). That way, the problems may be resolved, AND the pair can be prompted afterwards to debrief the process used, learn the process, and better understand how to be an effective mentoring partnership.

4. Plan a Mismatch Check About One Month After Mentoring Starts

Plan on separately checking with EVERY protégé and then mentor starting about a month after mentoring has started. Inquire as to whether they feel their mentoring match is as effective as it needs to be. Ask the protégé first, but if you get an indication of a problem, don’t assume it’s time for a change, and don’t create an expectation of any specific kind of solution as of yet. You have only a part of the whole picture. Promise to quickly investigate
the situation, and to facilitate a “RESOLUTION”.

Check then with the mentor, first neutrally asking for their feelings about the usefulness of the match, BEFORE sharing any protégé concerns. When one member of the pair says the match is not working, explore the reasons and decide if:

If these steps do not avoid or resolve the problems, those on the “Dealing With Mismatches” page will make it work as positively as can be expected for everyone involved.