6 trust-eroding behaviors to avoid as a mentor

Ten Directions

Ten Directions

Trust is the must-have element for successful mentoring.  

Like strong masonry walls or foundations, mentoring relationships built on trust are a product of many repeated actions over time that demonstrate care, steadiness, and consistency.

Of course, this could be said about
any relationship.  But this is particularly true in mentoring, because inherent vulnerabilities in this context make building and maintaining a foundation of trust especially important.   

Here’s why:  

  • As it’s a one-to-one relationship, both parties are more exposed – there’s less place to ‘hide’.
  • Your mentee is in learning mode and venturing out of their comfort zone (hopefully!).  This means they need to be able to relax their ego enough to take risks and make mistakes without fear of judgment or punishment from you as their mentor.   
  • Your mentee may also be trying new things that are potentially disruptive to the status quo or existing power structures – so you need to be able to tolerate your own discomfort with this type of risk-taking to be able to support their learning and self-reflection.  

Like any good masonry structure, building trust in the mentoring relationship takes time and effort.  It includes actions like creating a container for the relationship, maintaining confidentiality, demonstrating care, following through on commitments, and being open to honest feedback.   

Although many of us know that trust can be toppled in a moment, there are also ways that it can also be eroded more slowly over time unwittingly through seemingly minor breaches.  Just in the way masonry isn’t destroyed by removing only one stone, if allowed to slowly crumble over time, the integrity of the whole structure will inevitably collapse.    

So if you want to continue to nurture your hard-earned foundation of trust in your mentoring relationship, here are a few ‘trust leaks’ to avoid, and what you can do instead.   

Talking more than listening.

  • While of course sharing your own knowledge and experience with your mentee will be part of the relationship, your greatest value lies in supporting them to grapple with their unique challenges, their learning needs, and their growing edges.  
  • This means asking questions, listening deeply, reflecting what you’re hearing, and creating space for them to articulate their own vision and aspirations for their work and life. 
  • A good habit to build into your conversations when you find the impulse to share from your experience is to a) pause b) check in with yourself – why is it important for me to share this right now?  And c) to check in with them first to see if they are open to hearing something about your experience, and why you think it would be valuable for them.   

Being absent or distracted.

  • Being preoccupied by concerns outside of the mentoring, including answering phone calls or checking devices is a no no. 
  • We get it – life is busy!  And you likely know that no conversation has been served by multi-tasking and attending to disruptions. The more explicit you are about your shared norms for your mentoring conversations (i.e. turning off devices and choosing quiet spaces), the more they can become touchstones that each of you can refer to when they are not being honored.   

Giving mixed signals.  

  • This might look like inviting mentees to reach out as needed – but then not responding in a timely way to their requests for support. Or it might look like inviting honest feedback, and then responding with defensiveness when it comes your way.   
  • You are a role model in this relationship.  This does not mean you can’t be human, but the consistency you demonstrate will support safety and a sense of what to expect – and this includes owning your human-ness when your consistency for some reason does fall short.  

Not following through on promises.  

  • Building on the previous point, create alignment between your commitments and actions.  Even seemingly minor breaches (being consistently a few minutes late to your meetings) can accumulate and over time can impact your shared morale.  Being inconsistent, not following through, are signs of having questionable integrity, and they can also undermine your own self-trust and self-worth.  
  • Believe it or not, my mentor once told me: “If you forget to follow through on a commitment, acknowledge it as soon as possible and repair as needed”.  This will go a long way in shoring up any trust that may have been eroded, rather than accumulating ‘open loops’ that undermine the strength of your mentoring container over time.    

Over-identifying as the ‘expert’.

  • Having experience in one area does not make you an expert in everything – and being unwilling to say ‘I don’t know’ is a deal breaker when trust is involved. And more than likely, your mentees want to relate to you as a human, with your own vulnerabilities, tensions, and failings that you’ve experienced (or continue to experience) along the way. 
  • When you use self-disclosure to make your interior more visible to the other person, they are more likely to take a chance on doing the same.   

Not accurately ‘meeting’ your mentee in their ongoing evolution and becoming.  

    • Your mentee is growing (and hopefully, so are you!)  If you lack the relational agility to meet them freshly where they are ‘at’ in each conversation, you risk relating to them as fixed and static, creating a gap that hinders intimacy and widens over time.  
    • On the other hand, if you are seeming to need a new introduction each time you meet, here you are signaling that you don’t really know them. 
    • Avoiding either of these pitfalls (and for that matter, any of the above) means explicitly creating room for both of you to reflect on the process and make adjustments:  
  • For example, you might add 10 minutes to your next mentoring conversation to ask how things are going and whether they wish to make any changes to the process or partnership.  
  • Or, you could check-in on the mentoring relationship, by asking: “What are 3 things we could add or do more of in our mentoring partnership, and 3 things we could change?” Discuss and decide what to implement together. 

Now it’s time to put this into practice.

As you read through these trust-eroding moves, did you notice whether any of them were familiar to you?

  1. What other behaviors would you add to this list?
  2. What trust-eroding behavior would like to change in your own mentoring? 
  3. How might you ‘put one stone back into the wall’, and act in a more trustworthy way at your next conversation? What observable behavior will you commit to?
  4. Do you promise? 😉

Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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