We discussed last week that one of the hallmarks of a long-term mentoring relationship is the intentional vulnerability that develops between two people. This means they can easily strip away the outside masks and get down to the issues (both personal and business) that need attention. This kind of openness and willingness to share the truth is a quality found in effective leaders. They refuse to let pride get in the way of open communication that will encourage and assist others and advance the cause of the organization.
If the characteristics of a solid mentoring relationship remind you of a good friendship, you are right. Research data and our experience indicate that, more often than not, mentoring relationships grow over time into lasting friendships.
But if a mentoring relationship is to thrive, men in particular must overcome an issue that many of them struggle with: It’s hard for men to be vulnerable with one another, especially in the work environment. In his book The Friendless American Male, David Smith writes:
Men find it hard to accept that they need the fellowship of other men. The simple request, “Let’s have lunch together” is likely to be followed with the response, “Sure, what’s up?” The message is clear: the independent man doesn’t need the company of another man. In fact, the image of the independent man is that he has few if any emotional needs. Therefore, men must manufacture reasons for being together—a business deal must be discussed or a game must be played. Men often use drinking as an excuse to gather together. Rarely do men plan a meeting together simply because they have a need to enjoy each other’s company.
Even when men are frequently together their social interaction begins and remains at the superficial level. Just how long can conversations about politics and sports be nourishing to the human spirit? The same male employees can have lunch together for years and years and still limit their conversation to sports, politics, dirty jokes and comments about the sexual attractiveness of selected female workers in their office or plant. They do not know how to fellowship.
Getting beyond such superficiality takes effort, and at least in the early stages of their relationship, a mentor will have to model appropriate vulnerability to build trust with the protégé. Once the walls start coming down, the process will accelerate and the rewards will be great for both partners. Real issues will be addressed so that genuine personal and organizational growth and change may occur.
What about mentoring involving women? Are their needs and challenges different? Research from Bernice R. Sandler, senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, says that “at least one study has shown that male mentors were more likely to direct their female protegees and therefore to be disappointed if they [the protegees] did not follow their advice. The study found, in contrast, that female mentors were more likely to encourage and affirm their protegees’ career choices; they apparently had less emotional investment in having their protegees follow in their footsteps. Also, male mentors may be largely work focused and ignore personal issues that affect those with whom they are working, while women mentors often show interest in both the personal and professional lives of their students.”
My own experience has revealed that most women prefer a coach from outside their company. While they often would not mind having a male coach, the concerns about sexual overtones and misunderstood motives are often too high to make this a comfortable arrangement. Mentoring the opposite sex (either men mentoring women or women mentoring men) presents challenges, and certainly, if any sexual overtones develop, they need to be confronted and the relationship discontinued.
The right mentee paired with the right mentor leads to those in the relationship feeling appreciated, supported, empowered, and fully equipped to complete their tasks.