6 signs that mentoring isn’t working – and what to do (Part 1)

6 signs that mentoring isn’t working - and what to do (Part 1)

When mentoring works well, it can benefit all involved: the mentee reaches their goal, and the mentor develops their management skills whilst supporting someone’s progress. Whether it’s within a workplace or via a professional body, benefits abound. However, there are times when mentoring doesn’t work well – for the mentee, their mentor and the people organising the mentoring scheme. Based on my experience of working with mentors and mentees, I see six warning signs that mentoring isn’t working as it should – and what to do about them. In this post, I’ll cover the first 3 signs.

1. Unrealistic expectations

If a mentoring programme ‘isn’t working’ for mentors and/or mentees, often the culprit is a lack of realism about what can be expected. For example, the mentor may expect their mentee to build a broad set of skills in a short space of time. The mentee may have unrealistic ideas about how long it takes to get recognised and promoted at their workplace and feel let down by their mentor’s apparent lack of active intervention in their mentee’s career progress.

Steps to take: start with discussing how the process works – and how it doesn’t. Ideally this is documented, thanks to the people organising the mentoring programme. Expect to see DOs and DON’Ts and ‘What if…?’ Ensure both you and your mentor or mentee is familiar with the ‘rules of engagement’. For example, it would be unrealistic – and probably unethical – for a mentee to ask their mentor to give them a reference for a job application.

2. Cosy chats, going nowhere…

The mentor and mentee are getting on very well, they have a lot in common and lots to talk about. But after a few meetings, there’s a sense that there’s no real focus on the purpose of mentoring.

Steps to take: it’s time to revisit the mentee’s initial goals, which should have been clarified at the start. Are the goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-bound)? It may be necessary to take a reality check: can the goals be reached in the time given, or do they need to be reduced to just one or two priorities at a time?

3. Not showing up

This usually manifests as a rookie mentee turning up late for their appointment with their mentor. Sometimes they’re just late; sometimes they simply don’t turn up at all. Other times they cancel the appointment at short notice. Less likely is the mentor not showing up, but it can happen. Sometimes, it’s necessary to reschedule – for example, if someone is unwell.

Steps to take: both mentor and mentee need to revisit their initial ground-rules, which should have been explained and understood at the start of the mentoring process. If either the mentor and / or mentee has competing commitments, such as childcare, discuss and agree alternative ways to show up, such as via a video or phone call.

I hope this post has given you food for thought about your mentor / mentee partnership and how to keep it healthy. Watch out for my next post, in which I’ll cover boundary breaks,  and (gosh!) arguments. Meanwhile, you may find these posts useful: ’Essential questions mentors need to ask’ and ‘Tools for mentors and mentees 4’ (which has links to 3 other handy posts).

If you want to discuss how mentoring can benefit your people, please get in touch to find out more.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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