Toxic Mentoring

What is a mentor?

A mentor is a someone who guides a less experienced person by building trust and modeling positive behaviors. This relationship is extremely important for a multitude of reasons, primarily because the behaviors the learner acquires early on will stay with them through out their career. Effective mentors understand that their role is to be dependable, engaged, authentic, and tuned into the needs of the mentee. Unfortunately, not all mentoring experiences are positive.

As with any relationship, the mentor/mentee relationship has the potential to be dysfunctional or toxic. A toxic mentor is a term often used to describe a relationship that hinders or suppresses student learning, creates a dependency on the mentor, and results in diminished self confidence on the part of the learner.

Toxic relationships impact the learner and those around them, some of the resultant impacts are:

  • High turn over
  • Low worker satisfaction
  • Lateral violence – acts that occur between colleagues (e.g. bullying)
  • Fear and insecurity
  • Sabotage
  • Negative impact on health
  • Depression

Types of Toxic Mentors

The Avoider

avoider The Avoider is a mentor who is neither available nor accessible to the student to set and review their practice and goals or to provide support, challenge, and role modelling. Sometimes these mentors are over-committed, but that’s not an excuse for being non-communicative. Occasionally the realistic excuse of being too busy will hold water but the regular occurrence of this phenomenon indicates a mentor who is not at all committed to the task.

The Blocker

blocker2 The Blocker is one who hinders the learner’s development in a number of ways such as preventing them from accessing learning, over-supervising, or by withholding knowledge or information. They may also actively refuse a students requests for help or experience.

The Dumper

sinking The Dumper embraces the “sink or swim” mentality and will often deliberately leave the learner in situations where they are out of their depth and offer little to no assistance. This can obviously be dangerous and can have a huge negative impact upon the students’ confidence. This type of mentor will also take little responsibility for organizing meetings or learning experiences, leaving up to the student.

The Destroyer

inferior The Destroyer will use overt challenges and uses tactics such as humiliation that set out to destroy the learner’s self-confidence. At its worst this is done in public and has a huge impact upon confidence. Such mentors can also have a tendency to an over-inflated view of their own level of competence and can regard themselves as experts. One of the best parts of being a mentor is embracing the many challenges which students present as well as welcoming questioning minds and the desire to learn from the students. Once this the desire is lost the mentor needs to reconsider their role.

Habits of Toxic Mentors

  • Works with student much less than 40% of the time.
  • Frequently cancels meetings.
  • Regards student as a care assistant.
  • Will not let student do anything unsupervised.
  • Does not take account of level of learner.
  • Does not find out students learning needs.
  • Puts student in difficult unsupervised positions.
  • Does not broker learning experiences.
  • Frequently asks others to ‘look after’ the student.
  • Leaves the student to arrange everything.
  • Does not engage student in reflection on experience.
  • Feedback focuses upon the deficits and “weaknesses”.
  • Does not help with action plans.
  • Takes no responsibility for student learning.
  • Doesn’t attend mentor updates.
  • Is unfamiliar with the students paperwork and assessment.
  • Rarely aware of the evidence behind their own practice.
  • Does not acknowledge students prior experience.
  • Reluctant to embrace change.
  • Displays unprofessional behaviour.
  • Does not link work well with the multi-disciplinary team.

Dealing with a Toxic Mentor

To be clear, just because your mentor has any one of these tendencies does not necessarily make them a bad person or a bad mentor. Dealing with a toxic mentor is particularly complicated for graduate students due to the huge power dynamic. Often times the mentors are the ones who determine your success at the university which makes it especially easy for them to be taken advantage of. If you feel that your mentor is hindering your ability to succeed there are a few things that you can do.

  1. Consider a co-mentoring option to diversify
  2. Talk to your mentor directly about your concerns
  3. Talk to your university ombudsperson (Graduate Student Ombudsperson at Virginia Tech)
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