What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a unique form of learning partnership. The gains are reciprocal, but asymmetrical – knowledge, wisdom and rewards flow in both directions, although not equally.

There are many different permutations of mentoring partnerships. An adult may mentor a child or a youth, higher and further education organisations can provide mentors for students, and employers can facilitate mentoring partnerships in the workplace. Increasingly, an array of websites facilitates mentors and mentees to link up independently to give and receive support in diverse aspects of life and work.

At the core of a mentoring relationship is a mentor’s capacity to guide, and a mentee’s need for guidance. The table below indicates the type of thing mentors can do for their mentees to support their progress.

Types of intervention in mentoring (Morton-Cooper & Palmer, 2000: 44)

Self-development Confidence building Creativity Fulfilment of potential Risk takingTeaching Coaching Role modelling Counselling Support Advice Sponsorship Guidance ResourcesInterpersonal relations Social relations Networking Sharing Trust

The first column succinctly summarises the challenges with which a mentee may need help: self-development, confidence building, creativity, fulfillment of potential, and risk taking. On the other side are the means by which a mentee might find their place in a complex world: developing interpersonal relations, social relations, networking, sharing, and trust. In the middle are the interventions forming a core mentor skillset: teaching, coaching, role modelling, counselling, providing support advice, sponsorship, guidance, and resources.

Learning and self-development

What this table doesn’t quite capture for me is the element of skill learning and development, although this element is probably embedded in ‘self-development’. Practical and thinking skills come to the fore in workplace and education settings. Sometimes, it might suffice to provide a teacher or instructor to support skills learning. Teachers and instructors are perfectly able to provide teaching, guidance and resources relating to skills, but they might struggle to deliver some of the other mentoring functions that demand a closer relationship with the learner.

The mentoring relationship

A central aspect of mentorship is the relationship between mentor and mentee.  One keeping the other at arm’s length is likely to result in a disappointing experience for both parties. To be effective, mentoring generally requires a two-way trusting relationship. Therefore, both mentor and mentee need to have positive expectations of the other, especially at times when they feel exposed or vulnerable. Interpersonal vulnerability emerges in situations that involve an element of risk taking, such as trying out new techniques or reflecting candidly on their feelings. Supporting people in these interpersonal risk-taking situations requires mentors to cultivate an atmosphere of psychological safety, featuring mutual respect and positive self-regard.

Who is a suitable mentor?

People who are good at their jobs do not necessarily make good mentors, although they can be excellent role models.  Observing experts and top managers can make a novice feel that such a high attainment is beyond their reach. Commentators often say that a mentoring relationship can work well if the mentor is only a small step ahead of the mentee, because their level of skill can seem more attainable and a mentee might feel less in awe of them. However, perhaps it can be more meaningful and inspirational to have a mentor who has reached a high position and who can look back on the highs and lows of their career. Furthermore, a good mentor can intelligently ‘read’ a situation, whether it be an emerging pattern of behaviours in the workplace or a sudden loss of mentee confidence, and draw on their experience and wisdom to provide guidance. ‘One size’ does not meet all needs.

Formal mentoring

When people discuss mentoring, they are usually referring to formal mentorship programmes. In formal programmes, mentors and mentees find their best possible match via a structured and supported process.  Documentation defines roles, goals, and expected outcomes. The mentoring relationship proceeds and finishes with reference to the formal documents and planned evaluations at agreed intervals. People who are willing and able to commit to a formal mentoring relationship are often in short supply.  Perhaps they are just too busy, perhaps no one has asked them, or perhaps they are not convinced they would make a good mentor. Additionally, being subject to scrutiny in these formal arrangements can feel like being too much in the spotlight for both mentor and mentee.

Informal mentoring

Mentoring relationships can also simply emerge naturally and spontaneously.  A colleague, friend, tutor or youth leader may take someone ‘under their wing’, taking a special interest in helping them onto the career ladder, to develop new skills, or to make a major life decision. People in informal mentoring relationships may not recognise themselves as mentors or mentees. The timespan of the mentoring can be limited to a couple of chance conversations during a week, or it can be life-long. Informal mentoring is more likely to feel like a friendship than the more formal type of mentoring.

Mentoring moves

Finally, how do mentors and mentees work together? They need to have conversations about the mentee’s needs and goals, and also about how the mentor can help. In a learning situation, the mentor can support the mentee to access experiences and resources that will support learning. There is a large repertoire available for mentors to support personal development, e.g. showing how things can be done, doing things together, providing information, introducing new contacts, listening, coaching, giving encouragement, and being an advocate. A mentor will also monitor their mentee’s progress. In some circumstances, the monitoring will inform assessment of competence which is sometimes added to a mentor’s role in formal situations, especially in workplace learning programmes.

Mentoring can make considerable demands on mentors. Nevertheless, many mentors find that mentoring increases their job satisfaction, because they enjoy being able to help people develop their careers or make the best life decisions. An experience of having had a great mentor can also be a good incentive to ‘give something back’. Despite the intrinsic rewards, some may find the responsibility of mentoring and the time demands too overwhelming or even stressful. Working hard to maintain a healthy trusting relationship with a mentee can be exhausting for some, especially if it coincides with other work or life stressors.


Morton-Cooper, A., & Palmer, A. (2000). Mentoring, preceptorship and clinical supervision: A guide to professional roles in clinical practice (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Author: Anthea

I enjoy writing about the intersection between people and the natural world. I also feel compelled to delve into human behaviour - philosophically and practically. With a background in further and higher education, plant science and healthcare, I like to apply my expertise in workplace learning, distance learning and e-learning. Mix it all up, and see what comes out!

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