Avoid Mentor & Supervisor Role Conflicts

By Imogen Wareing


A Common But Critical Question

This question of the difference between mentoring and supervision is often raised at our mentoring network meetings, and is a frequent issue when setting up a formal mentor program. It is an important issue. If the differences between the roles are unclear, the supervisor may have concerns that their authority is being impinged upon and the mentee can feel the mentor has a conflict in loyalty or even career security.

The Ultimate Goal of Role Distinctions

The most essential concept is to create an emotionally safe environment in which the mentee feels comfortable taking the risk of trying new strategies and learning in front of a colleague who is viewed as a peer. This is why most mentoring programs decide to separate the mentoring functions from those of a supervisor. Most supervisors agree and state that to do otherwise just duplicates what they already can provide.

Exceptions to the Rule?

In some programs the supervisor fulfills the role as the mentor, but readers are cautioned against this practice, as it can further confuse the roles and severely limit mentee development opportunities. Certainly, supervisors are responsible to promote the professional growth of their subordinates, and mentoring functions should be a part of an effective strategy to do so, but their role as evaluator will always be evident and often will influence an employee’s openness and risk taking. That is why it is essential to ensure that the roles of the mentor and supervisor are clearly differentiated, communicated, and understood before the mentor program is launched.

Major Role Differences

Mentor programs often use checklists to capture the priority tasks on which mentoring should be focused. These tasks are usually tasks which supervisors would undertake or delegate when there is no mentoring program. This suggests that a mentor’s role is, in part, a leadership role, which is true. This is why it is critical for a mentor and the supervisor of a protege to meet prior to the beginning of the mentoring process, to negotiate who does what to support the protege. Without such agreements it is quite likely that some tasks will be left undone (“I thought you were doing that.”) and others may be needlessly duplicated (“You did that? I did it too.”)

Although there may be some variation between mentor programs, the roles of mentor and supervisor differ in most programs in the following areas:

  • The supervisor manages the on-the-job performance of the mentee and the mentor is not involved in performance assessment for purposes of employment or job certification.  The mentor’s role is to prompt the mentee to do a process of reflection and effective self assessment, followed by professional growth goal setting and planning.
  • The supervisor has authority of hierarchical or positional and legal power over the mentee. The mentor guides, suggests, teaches, challenges, and coaches using the power of experience, expertise, and caring to influence the mentee’s actions and growth..
  • The supervisor’s emphasis is more often on the meeting of short-term targets
    and effective day to day work focused on productivity and results, while the mentor will usually have a longer term, more strategic focus on the mentee’s development.

Proactive Steps to Avoid Role Conflicts

The author’s experience is in her own organization’s Growth Connection Mentor Program. Her research results so far indicate that some supervisors have sabotaged the mentor relationship in some cases where they have felt threatened by or isolated from a mentoring process which they feel is conflicting with their own work as a supervisor. Obviously, this condition is to be carefully avoided.

What steps can you take to prevent these difficulties from arising in your organization’s mentoring program? Here are some guiding principles.

  • Involve the supervisors in the mentoring program from the beginning, if possible, in the planning stages through focus group participation. The Growth Connection experience has found this to be very helpful in designing a pilot program and keeping everyone informed.
  • When the mentor program plan is completed, hold specific briefing meetings for the supervisors of potential mentees so that they can have their questions answered and understand the process and project milestones.
  • Build contact between the mentor and supervisor into the program as soon as the mentee-mentor match is decided, and consider a role for supervisors as a team member in selection of the mentor and making the match. They often have insights into employee strengths and needs that others may not.
  • Invite supervisors to mentor training and follow up mentoring meetings so they understand the process and can value and support it, as well as use it in their own supervision.
  • Involve supervisors in the ongoing evaluation of the program. Not only will their input and perspective be valuable to compare to others, but it will reveal where emerging concerns are before they become bigger issues that can ruin a program.
  • The mentoring coordinator should communicate regularly with the mentee’s supervisors about general level information, but not information specific to any confidences known about any one mentoring pair.
  • Guide the mentees to keep their supervisor informed of upcoming meetings, overall progress and openly discuss their mentoring and workplace skill and experience development.  This can be accomplished without the need to break confidentiality agreements by simply having the mentee talk about themselves and their own growth and experiences, not about their mentor.

The Best Measure of Role Success

The most successful mentoring programs have the full and active support of the supervisors and managers outside the mentor relationship. A real measure of success in dealing with the challenge of role distinctions is when supervisors volunteer to be mentors themselves in the management mentoring program.