Is Unconscious Bias Limiting Your Success as a Mentor?

Recently, I’ve noticed a growing number of organizations introducing structured mentoring initiatives, matching junior members of staff with senior leaders through formal programs. As these programs grow in popularity, here is my biggest piece of advice for those of you finding yourselves in a formal mentoring role.

Unconscious bias: the barrier to a successful mentoring relationship

Your mentee is looking to you to support them as they develop skills, knowledge or ways of thinking that will help them to achieve their professional goals. You will be asked to draw upon your experience and knowledge to advise, challenge, support or coach your mentee through specific challenges they’re facing in their current role, or to help them to develop the skills they need to progress.

As a mentor, your experience and knowledge are the assets you bring to the table, but if you don’t deploy them wisely you will fall into a common trap: allowing your unconscious bias to influence the advice that you share.

Your advice will be built on assumptions and beliefs that have worked for you, but that may not hold true for your mentee. A male mentor I spoke to recently articulated this challenge well. He told me how, as a mentor, he has become aware that he needs to change his reaction to mentees who seek his advice on juggling parenting a new baby with their professional responsibilities. Recognizing that today’s policies and attitudes towards shared family leave differ dramatically compared with his experience 25 years ago, he now makes a conscious effort to educate himself on the circumstances his mentees are facing before sharing his perspective.

One of the most important things to remember throughout your time as a mentor is that you are there to support your mentee as they navigate challenges and opportunities in the context in which they currently find themselves. Be aware of the differences between your current situations, and empathize. Your mentee may be interested in how you would solve the problem now, with all the benefits of your current position, just be aware that it may not be a practical solution for them. You also need to share how you would solve the problem if you were in their shoes. 

Questions are the key

The easiest way to ensure your advice and suggestions do not create a barrier between you and your mentee is to ask more questions. Great mentors help the mentee make sense of their situation and adapt a solution to fit. When your mentee comes to you with a problem, don’t jump straight into a story of your own. Ask open questions, or playback the problem to make sure you’ve fully understood the heart of it:

  • When you say xxxx, do you mean…?
  • I get the impression that……
  • It sounds as if……

Once you are sure you understand the nature of the problem, and the circumstances that will influence the way your mentee can approach solutions, you will be able to formulate a considered and relevant response.

Mutual effort yields mutual reward

Of course, that doesn’t mean to say you have to do all of the heavy lifting. Your mentee needs to take responsibility for their own development, and they need to make some effort to interpret and adapt your advice to their own circumstances. However, you also can’t expect them to blindly accept your suggestions, regardless of the quality of your contribution. Mentoring is a reciprocal relationship, and can be very valuable to both you and your mentee if you approach your sessions with an equal dose of empathy and self-awareness.

Are you the mentee in your mentoring relationship? Read our next article on how you can make the most of your mentor’s time and advice.