Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

The Difference Between A Mentor And Mentoring Behavior

mentorOne of the career development websites says this about mentors:

What separates a mentor from the average network contact is long-term commitment and a deep-seated investment in your future.

Further along in the article it says:

…your relationship with a mentor likely involves long lunches and time spent in the mentor’s office.

Those statements are both true, based on the historic and contemporary views of mentorship. However, those statements also point out the potentially negative aspects of mentoring. They also bring into question the accuracy of statements made by many supervisors and managers that they are mentors to those who report to them at work.  More likely they are providing mentoring behavior: Encouraging, advising, correcting, discussing, suggesting. Many are not even doing that much.

Mentes (Mentor) was a good friend of Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Ironically, most of the good advice given to Ulysses’s son was given by Athena who took the form of Mentes. Nevertheless, the term mentor has long been used to mean an advisor or wise counsellor. InThe Odyssey, Telemachus (the son of Ulysses and Penelope) says to Athena/Mentor,

…you’ve been speaking as a friend,
thinking as a father would for his own son—
and what you’ve said I never will forget.

Do you really want to be a mentor? A busy professional person told me not long ago that over the last few years several people have asked him to be a mentor to them and he has said no…to their shocked surprise. He told me he would always be available for a short phone call or an emailed question, but he said: “What they wanted was a true mentor–someone who would invest time and energy in their careers. I don’t have enough time for my own work and frankly, I don’t want someone calling or visiting me just to talk or expecting me to meet with them regularly.”

You may feel the same way. Before you agree to be a mentor, find out the expectations of the mentee. Make sure you really care about his or her career as if he or she is a personally selected protege who you want to shepherd to success.

Are you really the mentor you say you are? Some might say it is only a semantic issue to question whether someone is actually mentoring others or not, but I think it is important to be correct about it. Time, energy and potential success would indicate a supervisor cannot truly mentor every employee. On the other hand, it would not be a good thing for a supervisor to spend large amounts of time mentoring one employee but not others. Instead, an effective supervisor will engage in mentoring behaviors with all employees.

In addition, mentoring behavior is more than cheer-leading, commending, answering questions or just being friendly or encouraging.  Athena, as Mentor, told Telemachus, “You must not keep on acting like a child—you’re too old for that now…You are fine and strong, I see. You should be brave, so people born in future years will say good things of you.” 

You may need to balance your supportive mentoring conversations with some tough caring:

  • Honesty about how the employee is coming across to others.
  • Correction when the employee has shown poor judgment.
  • Guidance, when the employee is starting down the wrong path in behavior or performance.
  • Questions and listening, when the employee is trying to decide.
  • Specific advice on occasion, not just vague generalities.

The bottom line: As with many phrases we toss around without thinking, the term mentor is often misused and misunderstood. Make sure you know what you are talking about when you say you are a mentor or you will be a mentor.  Maybe what you really want to do is just fulfill your role as a supervisor, team leader or coach–or be a valuable colleague, coworker or friend.

March 14th, 2010 Posted by | Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments


  1. Once again you provide back-story information I haven’t read before.

    I was in a mentoring group a few years ago and we found it was important to set limits on time and expectations. There is a learning curve for both participants. Don

    Comment by Don R, | March 16, 2010

  2. Where were you when I was writing my dissertation??? I don’t know when you find the time to research everything, but it makes for interesting reading.

    Comment by Wiseacre | March 18, 2010

  3. I came to your website after reading your comment on Bnet about taking credit. I’m loving your writing! This is an excellent look a mentoring….and takes a different approach than anything I’ve read about it. Good luck in your work!

    Comment by Sandra D. | March 19, 2010

  4. Most formal mentors (I have been one five times, a year at a time) don’t have someone dropping in or calling unexpectedly. Usually I set up a two hour session one day a week, before work and exchange one or two emails or a phone call. This also helps the problem of some mentees and mentors using the program to avoid working.

    I agree that mentoring behavior is a good way to help people without the time involved in being a full mentor. I’m not in the mentoring program right now for that reason…too many irons in the fire myself. Instead I do other things to help new employees or newly promoted employee. (Short notes, etc.)

    Of course, some mentors become more involved than others. I have known some who mostly told stories about their own careers, gossiped or even had the mentee doing work for them!

    Comment by Margaret | March 21, 2010

  5. I want a Mentor, but dont know how to find one.

    Comment by Elsie Kgatla | September 30, 2010

  6. Tina says: Thanks to all of you for your comments. I’ve written to each of you individually.

    Elsie, my experience has been that it works best to not focus on getting a mentor (unless there is a work or school requirement for naming a mentor). Instead focus on identifying several people who you respect and who can be informal listeners and occasional advisors.

    Other than in mentoring programs, mentors usually develop over time. I think there needs to be a professional or personal relationship that builds into mentorship.

    Comment by TLR | October 9, 2010

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