Is Mentoring a “Peer” Relationship ?

By Barry Sweeny, 2002

In most mentoring pairs, their purpose dictates that the mentor has much more expertise and experience than the protégé. The difference between the mentor and protégé is valued because it is the source of learning for the protégé. I call such a relationship “expert mentoring” or “expert-novice mentoring”.

In some other cases, the differences are downplayed and the support is framed as “peer mentoring” or “peer coaching”. Though not always the case, often use of the “peer” label is because mentors are not adequately trained to work with other adults. As a result, they make mistakes, find themselves to be less than the effective mentors they hoped to be, and they see protégés that do not “take the mentor’s advice”. The flaw is entirely one of inadequate mentor training.

When not prepared, mentors soon begin to redefine their role as “PEERS, not supervisors”. In other words, mentors’ discomfort and ineffectiveness in sharing their experience leads them to either:

  • Adopt more an authoritative supervisory role in which they would press for the desired changes, (usually NOT preferred) or…
  • Downplay the differences between the mentor and their protégé to increase their comfort in this tricky relationship.

This one factor is the most common reason why mentoring is typically ineffective at increasing performance and results. As such, it becomes critical to our program’s success that we understand and effectively deal with these distinctions.

In fact, if handled well, the diversity of experiences between mentors and their protégés should be seized and celebrated as a strength and a necessity for their learning from each other. That diversity, in any of its forms, must NOT be down played, as it is the biggest resource available to ensure protégé success and is the very reason that mentors are selected for their experience.