Sunday, July 06, 2014

6 reasons why we don't need ‘mentors’

I’ve never had a mentor. I don’t want a mentor. I don’t like mentoring. I know this is swimming against the tide of liberal orthodoxy but I value liberal values more than I value fads, groupthink or orthodoxy. But there’s many reasons why I’m both suspicious of and reject mentoring.
1. Fictional constructs
Mentor was a character in Homer’s The Odyssey and it is often assumed that his role was one of a guiding, experienced hand for his son and family. This is false. Mentor was simply an old acquaintance, ill-qualified play a protective role to his family, and worse, turned out to be a patsy for a hidden force, the God Athena. A similar tale has unfolded in recent times, with mentoring being revived on the back of late 19th century psychoanalytic theory, where the original theory has been abandoned but the practice upon which it is based survives.
There is another later work of fiction that resurrected the classical model as a source for the word ‘mentor’ in education, Fenelon’s Les Adventures de Telemaque (1699). This is a tale about limiting the excesses of a king but it did reinforce the presence of the word ‘mentor’ in both French, then English. Yet Mentor in this ponderous novel is prone to didactic speeches about how a king should rule (aided by the aristocracy), hardly the egalitarian text one would expect to spark a revolution in education. Interestingly, it pops up again as one of two books given to Emile in the novel of the same name, by Rousseau.
2. Psychoanalytic veneer
Mentoring came out of the psychanalytic movement in education with Freud and Rogers. Nothing survives of Freud’s theories on the mind, education, dreams, humour or anything else for that matter. But Rogers is different. His legacy is more pernicious, like pollution seeping into the water table. His work has resulted in institutional practice that has hung around many decades after the core theories have been abandoned. We need to learn how to abandon practice when the theories are defunct.
3. Mentoring is a trap
As Homer actually showed, one person is not enough. To limit your path, in work or life, to one person is to be feeble when it comes to probability. Why choose one person (often that person is chosen for you) when there are lots of good people out there. It stands to reason that a range of advice on a range of diverse topics (surely work and life are diverse) needs a range of expertise. Spread your network, speak to a range and variety of people. Don’t get caught in one person’s spider’s web. Mentoring is a trap.
4.  People, social media, books etc. are better
You don’t need a single person, you need advice and expertise. That is to be found in a range of resources. Sure, a range of people can do the job and hey - the best write books. Books are cheap, so buy some of the best and get reading. You can do it where and when you want and they’re written by the world’s best, not just the person who has been chosen in your organisation or a local life coach. And if you yearn for that human face, try video – TED and YouTube – they’re free! I’d take a portion of the training budget and allow people to buy from a wide reading list, arther than institute expensive mentoring programmes. Then there's socil media a rich source of advice and guidance provided daily. This makes people more self-reliant, rather than being infantalised.
5. Absence of proof
Little (1990:297) warned us, on mentoring, that, “relative to the amount of pragmatic activity, the volume of empirical enquiry is small [and]... that rhetoric and action have outpaced both conceptual development and empirical warrant.”  This, I fear, is not unusual in the learning world.
Where such research is conducted the results are disappointing. Mentors are often seen as important learning resources in teacher education and in HE teaching development. Empirical research shows, however, that the potential is rarely realised (Edwards and Protheroe, 2003: 228; Boice, 1992: 107). The results often reveal low level "training" that simply instruct novices on the "correct" way to teach (Handal and Lauvas, 1988: 65; Hart-Landsberg et al., 1992: 31). Much mentoring has been found to be rather shallow and ineffective (Edwards, 1998: 55-56).
6. Fossilised practice
Practice gets amplified and proliferates through second-rate train the trainer and teacher training courses, pushing orthodoxies long after their sell-by, even retirement, date. Mentoring has become a lazy option and alternative for hard work, effort, real learning and reflection. By all means strive to acquire knowledge, skills and competences, but don’t imagine that any of this will come through mentoring.
Conclusion: get a life, not a coach
I know that many of you will feel uncomforted by these arguments but work and life are not playthings. It’s your life and career, so don’t for one minute imagine that the HR department has the solutions you need. Human resources is there to protect organisations from their employees, so is rarely either human or resourceful. Stay away from this stuff if you really want to remain independently human and resourceful.
English translation of Les Adventures de Telemaque
Little, J.W. (1990) ‘The Mentor Phenomenon and the Social Organisation of Teaching’, in: Review of Research in Education. Washington D.C: American Educational Research Association.
Warhurst R (2003)Learning to lecture Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.


Dick Carlson said...

I choose my "mentors" for the connections and resources they can give me access to. And they're NEVER run through the HR department!

Anonymous said...

I can only guess you were short of ideas to blog about and so decided to take a narrow view and dig deep in to it. To reject a form of learning that works successfully for some or many is a shame to read. Does anyone truly believe that a mentor is a replacement for reading etc? I suspect very few. Does anyone truly believe that mentors appear from the HR dept? I hope not. Does anyone think that a mentor is the same as a coach? Unfortunately, this may well be the case, but they are ill-informed. I subscribe to the view that five minutes with a wise man (hopefully a mentor fits the bill) is better than a week with a fool.

Donald Clark said...

Strange that you see 'wisdom' as an ad hominem attack, rather than engaging with the arguments presented, discussion and debate. You are yourself (anonymous) a good argument for avoiding mentors.

Unknown said...

Best wishes from an old lady who lived and worked through the bigging up of mentoring into a kind of professional and business orthodoxy. I'd love to know where all these sage mentors hide out, when so much is in a dreadful mess!

Anonymous said...

You make a great case for why you *do* need a mentor. Your analysis of the history of mentoring is partial and partisan. Your referencing does not remotely reflect the academic discourse on coaching and mentoring in the past 20 years, and your assertions about the role of HR in organizations are a crass generalization. OK, so some mock outrage here, and you are absolutely entitled to your view - but it might be worth experiencing the thing that you try to de-bunk before doing so. It's a little like warning off others off from reading a book, that you yourself have not read?

Donald Clark said...

OK 'anonymous' - is that a virtue in your sharing/caring world? I've spent 31 years in education and L&D, delivering projects in almost every sector. If you're an example of what I 'need' then my initial suspicions are sound. It's this need that some have to impose their, often dubious, expertise on others that lies at the heart of poor mentoring projects. Given the quality of your post - I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Donald - is what a virtue? Not sure I understand. I'm also not sure, given the light tone of my post ('mock outrage'), that it warranted your spleen or disdain. It's interesting to see that you haven't responded to one of my points - but choose instead a form of attack. What I said was that you are absolutely entitled to your views - and it would be nice to see you respond to the criticism. I'm not sure why you feel the need to refer to your 31 years - is this an attempt to give credibility to your claims of something that you neither understand, nor have experienced? Seriously - if you were reporting or reflecting on a bad experience of mentoring I would at least understand... but you are akin to the book burners and hypocrites who throw something away when they have no experience of what it is. On what experiential basis are you opposing the concept of mentoring?

Donald Clark said...

Respond to what -your charge that I don't know anything about the subject? The charge that I know nothing about HR? Your charge that I know nothing about coaching and mentoring? You know nothing about me and through anonymity refuse to tell me anything about yourself. If your post is meant to display some sort of 'mentoring' expertise, then god help your mentees. It was an example of what I was talking about - the false assumption that you have the knowledge to teach me about life, management whatever. I have decades of experience with coaching, mentoring and HR. I have experienced mentoring, even been asked on many occassions to be one. The former was a waste of time and the latter I declined. There's no end of useful people out there to gather advice from. My point was that limiting yourself to someone called a 'mentor' is outdated.

Mr. Chayob said...

Hi Donald, I think and believe that mentoring is still important. We not only read at the experience but also must there is mentoring. A human cannot life alone.

deformador said...

Is it not logical that we rely on one person above the group, for simplicity and ensured availability? I believe that a mentor is one of many resources to have at hand, but one particularly useful when engaging tasks that fall into his area of expertise. I appreciate having someone with dedicated time to support my learning process, providing he doesn't indoctrinate rather than guide me (it sounds a bit like a good elementary school teacher, doesn't it?). I admit that most of so-called mentors won't probably meet this last requirement.

Phillipus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Great to challenge fads and "emperor's new clothes", but, we need less polarized thinking and more differentiation for the critique to reflect reality and be really useful.

You are undoubtedly right that many people won't find many mentors useful - but there are many who do find them useful and worth the time and money invested.

Choosing the right mentor (or mentors) is crucial – the appropriate ones are not necessarily in a “formal” mentoring role. My Dad was one of my best mentors – but it took me a while to realize it and the skill he brought to our conversations! (doh!)

People learn in different ways, so a good mentor will be more useful to some than others. That fit/relevance will also be different with different challenges. Finding the appropriate people and methods to catalyse learning is a skill that impacts on the effectiveness of any support chosen.

A manager (CFO of an organisation’s German subsidiary) I was working with the other day said to me at the end of a one-hour session - "That was really useful for me...but I was pretty skeptical at the start of the session about what I’d get from it. I'm now much clearer in my mind about my goals, the challenges and what I need to do to make the difference I need to make" - and he left with a spring in the step, that wasn't there before the session. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so we'll need to wait and see what he actually does...but he undoubtedly had a different appetite after the session.

You are also right that many mentors are not effective – as with any group of people, about half of them are worse than average…probably ;)). In my 11 years of practice, the feedback, impacts, repeat-business and referrals that I (and many other professionals) get seems to indicate at least a perception by many of value for money, How do you know that those people are wrong in their judgments? Research covers a multitude of variety.

I'm also interested that your article seems to lump together three different learning & development support activities: mentoring, sponsoring and coaching. Why is that?

When coaching, I find sometimes that someone needs more input (mentoring) than expected and whilst sometimes I can help, I often find myself asking them who the right expert is for them to seek out – and it is surprising how many people haven't thought of doing that and then how different their energy and confidence is from that realisation.

Finally, if coaching and mentoring is as ineffective as you write - why are they one of the fastest growing L&D activities? Why are organisations training more and more managers in coaching and mentoring skills? Why are more and more organisations building internal non-functional coaching programmes?

You may not have benefitted from mentoring yet, many others may also not have benefited yet...but apparently many have, many do and many will continue to do so for a long time to come – it is clearly useful for some people for some issues some of the time – but obviously not the answer to everything all of the time!!

I remember reading that some research into the effectiveness of psychotherapy/counselling methods found that no one school or approach was more effective than another, but that it was specific practitioners who were more or less effective.

I'll be interested to hear what you and others think...and hope that if one day you recognise a need for external support for yourself or others you aim to support, that you will find the right coach/mentor who can help usefully, effectively and deliver value for time and money invested.

Hilary Gee
Executive Coach, Management & Team Mentor, Change Facilitator