When Mentorship Goes Off Track

By B.R.J. O’Donnell

Mentorship is often cast as a positive experience. But for every scientist whose mentor enabled a research breakthrough and every high-school student whose mentor was key to receiving a college acceptance letter, there are people whose professional relationships were counterproductive or even damaging. And despite this reality, the potential pitfalls of mentorship are not as often discussed as the benefits of it.

For The Atlantic‘s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with W. Brad Johnson, a professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy. Johnson talked about how his career came to focus on understanding mentorship, how these relationships can unravel, and what can be done to salvage them if they do. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


B.R.J. O’Donnell: What do you see as the most critical element to get right when it comes to mentorship?

W. Brad Johnson: Intentionality on both sides really matters. If there is one variable that shows if mentorship relationships are likely to take off or not, it’s frequency of interaction during the first several months of the relationship. I find that very often mentors are so busy that they may notionally commit to mentoring somebody and then never follow through. And I think an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic. It may unintentionally convey to the mentee that they are just not that worthy or important.

O’Donnell: Some would say that the mentee should just be persistent in a situation like that. When faced with a distant mentor, should they just keep pushing for a response?

Johnson: Sometimes mentees view their mentors as being so accomplished that they have trepidation about approaching them, and they are hesitant to reach out. So if both of those elements are present, what you actually have is two people who just never interact, and that isn’t mentorship.

O’Donnell: In your experience, what is the biggest source of conflict in these relationships?

Johnson: I think if expectations are not aligned, you will often get conflict. If the two parties work to align their expectations around what the relationship is going to be about, and what functions a mentor is going to provide—how they will work together, what the mentor’s role will be in the life of the mentee, and how often they meet—then this is a pitfall that can be sidestepped.

O’Donnell: When mentorship isn’t going as planned, what can improve the situation?

W. Brad Johnson, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy (Image courtesy of W. Brad Johnson)

Johnson: Too often, in any relationship where there is dysfunction, the two people don’t talk about it transparently. I would say that basic communication is essential. A mentor can avoid an awful lot of that simply by bringing up their concerns. It can be as straightforward as saying, “I’ve noticed that you don’t drop by anymore. Am I contributing to something that’s problematic? Help me …read more

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