4 Big Mistakes Mentors Make and a Few Tips on How to Address Them

The passing of knowledge from the old guard to the next generation of professionals is a time-honored, workplace tradition. From the earliest examples of apprenticeship to more structured leadership development programs, mentorships can come in all shapes and sizes.

Becoming a mentor to a bright up-and-comer is a big responsibility and one that should be considered an honor. If you’ve been asked to mentor a young professional in the early stages of their career, it’s because you’ve already proven your prowess and others have recognized there is much to learn from your experience and expertise.

Remember: No one is infallible
In mentorships, the potential for growth isn’t one sided. Even if you know you’re prepared and well-equipped for the task of taking on a mentee, it doesn’t mean you aren’t susceptible to making a mistake or two along the way. In fact, some of the best knowledge you can impart upon an eager corporate ladder climber is how to properly address failures and shortcomings.

Whether you’re already in an established mentorship or thinking about taking on your first mentee, here are a few big mistakes many mentors make to keep in mind.

1. Not setting guidelines and expectations

Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind. – Seneca

Setting, working toward, and, hopefully, achieving goals and milestones are fundamental practices of successful mentorships. A mentee is looking for guidance to build their skills and to advance their career, so as a mentor, it’s important to help them identify specific goals and the steps they’ll need to take to reach them.

Write it down
When setting goals and identifying action steps for achievement, both mentor and mentee should first and foremost write them down. A study by Dominican University of California showed that we are 42% more likely to achieve goals if we write them down. Writing out goals helps add clarity and focus, gives you a visual target to work toward, increases accountability, and allows you to better track your progress.

2. Having a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means. – Albert Einstein

Being a mentor is a big responsibility and one that requires a commitment to, as leadership expert John Maxwell puts it, “know the way, go the way, and show the way.” While there are often extenuating circumstances that guide our actions, it sends mixed messages if you’re teaching your mentee one thing, but doing the opposite.

Let your mentee know it’s ok to call you out
A mentee isn’t the only one who learns and grows during a mentorship. It is absolutely a mutually beneficial relationship and there will be incidents when the student becomes the teacher. Embrace those moments and encourage your mentee to call you out when your actions don’t quite align with your words. Use them as opportunities to not only keep yourself accountable, but also to evaluate individual situations and discuss the reasons behind your actions.

3. Thinking you have to have all the answers

To know that one knows what one knows, and to know that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know, there lies true wisdom. – Confucius

The supercomputer Titan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has storage capacity of 40 petabytes. That’s 40,000,000 gigabytes. And construction has already begun on an even more powerful computer. So, the point is—there’s always going to be more information than there is space to store it. Don’t worry about not having all the answers to your mentee’s questions, as long as you’re prepared to find them.

Seek out answers together
It’s okay for a mentor to admit when they’re stumped. If anything, it shows a mentee that no matter their level of success, there will always be more to learn. However, it’s important not to simply admit defeat. Lessons can still be learned when you don’t have all the answers. A mentor can offer key insights into how to find solutions to challenges and where to turn when more information is needed, so including a mentee in the search and discovery process can be a valuable learning opportunity.

4. Force a relationship that isn’t working

People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost. – H. Jackson Brown

A mentorship shouldn’t feel forced. Earnest engagement by both mentor and mentee is paramount. If maintaining the relationship becomes simply a task that must be checked off a to-do list, it’s time to reevaluate and determine if both parties are still receiving what they need, or if a new arrangement needs to be devised.

Help identify a new mentor
If it is determined that a mentorship is not working out, it’s important both parties don’t just cut ties and run. This is an opportunity for a mentor to impart a final lesson upon their mentee by helping them identify a new mentor that better suits their needs. By taking time to discuss what wasn’t working and what was missing from the mentorship, a mentor can not only help their mentee find a new mentor, but it may even shed light on some development opportunities for themselves.

What are other mistakes mentors make? How should they be addressed? Let us know in the comments section below?

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4 Responses to 4 Big Mistakes Mentors Make and a Few Tips on How to Address Them

  1. Kimberly Zachary January 6, 2015 at 8:29 am #


    This article was chock-full of useful information. I rarely read the articles in my in-box but made an exception for –

    4 Big Mistakes Mentors Make and a Few Tips on How to Address Them

    By Jared Brox · January 5th, 2015

    This helped me on two levels. As a mentee, the article was invaluable by providing insightful tools to use to reach goals. As a mentor, it reminded me to be open-minded and ASK for feedback from others. Also, a few questions I asked myself after reading:
    1) Am I setting a good example?
    2) Do my actions match my words?
    3) When I make a mistake do I take responsibility for it? How do I show ownership?
    4) Do I communicate as well as I’m able when there are things to be discussed!

    Ultimately, I wanted to thank this writer for the useful information shared with us. Thanks!

    • Refresh Leadership January 6, 2015 at 9:29 am #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! January is National Mentoring Month, so it’s a great time for mentors and mentees to evaluate their progress and address any issues before we get too busy in the new year!

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Lori January 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    I would like a checklist or some strategies about how to find a compatible mentor if you do not currently have one. I would like a mentor but do not know where to look or how to initiate the process. Thank you for your consideration.

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