HR professionals know the value of assigning mentors to top performers. Good managers can act as role models, coaches, brokers, and advocates for these outstanding performers and improve their opportunities to use their talents for both their own benefit and that of the company. Mentoring also can help sustain an employee's motivation when there are limited opportunities for advancement.

Done right, mentoring one employee can motivate not only that person but also the remainder of the staff becausethe company demonstrates that it truly cares about its people, says Florence M. Stone, author of Coaching, Counseling,and Mentoring (AMACOM). But she warns of mentoring traps that can ruin relationships.

Moving On

One major mentoring trap, according to Stone, is that mentors often wrongly believe that they cannot end the relationship, that only the mentee can make the break.

There are a number of legitimate reasons why a mentor might want to end the arrangement, including the realization that the mentee has outgrown the mentor.

Also, sometimes managers find that mentoring is inhibiting an employee's development rather than supporting it, Stone says. The employee "becomes so dependent on her managerial mentor that there is actually a decline in performance. Rather than try to resolve problems on her own, the mentee continually runs to her mentor for help."

Rather than building a network of contacts, the mentee becomes dependent on the mentor, perhaps even focusing more on the mentorship than on routine work, says Stone. The only way overdependence on a mentor can be addressed is by severing the relationship.

Another reason for a mentor to end the relationship is because of a personality conflict. To avoid such situations inthe future, allow potential mentors and mentees a period of geting aquainted before establishing relationships.

Still another reason to end a mentorship is if, after a time, the mentee is unable to develop the new skills necessary for career advancement.

Fixing Problems

Some problems can be fixed, Stone says. Sometimes there are unrealistic developmental goals. A mentor may demand more of the mentee over a shorter time that he/she is capable of, or the mentee may expect more of the mentor that he/she has the ability or willingness toprovide. For example, she says, a mentee may expect the mentor's protection from organizational pressures, perhaps even a downsizing. But the mentor may be unaware of the political problems or may lack the clout to save the mentee from a staff reduction.

To avoid unrealistic expectations, the mentor should be specific with the mentee about what he/she can and will provide. Goals should be discussed before the relationship begins.

And, sometimes, managers lack the communication or managerial styles so critical to mentoring. They may need some coaching on their own to improve in these areas.

Mentoring to the Opposite Sex

Special problems can arise when a male manager mentors a female employee or a female manager mentors a male employee, according to Stone.

"Cross-gender mentoring can be open to misunderstanding in today's sexually conscious world. Those who enter into it need to be prepared to find that some people, often jealous of the special attention the mentee is getting, may spread rumors," she says. The good news is that "The gossipmongers usually get bored when they see no fire and move on, looking for others signs of smoke."

To better identify problems in general, encourage mentors and mentees to periodically discuss their relationship. Find out if they have expectations that are not being met. Ask what could be done to improve the relationship. If they have achieved their initial goals, what would be their next goals? Perhaps there is someone else within the company who would be a more appropriate mentor at the next stage of development.

Everyone involved must realize the need for continuous effort to keep the relationship going and to maximize the benefits of mentoring.

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