Effective Mentorship, Effective Communication

Effective Mentorship, Effective Communication

Stephanie Kelly (North Carolina A&T State University, USA), Jennifer Ann Morrow (University of Tennessee, USA) and Gary Skolits (University of Tennessee, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8562-8.ch008


This chapter explores the ethical and perceptual concerns related to communication between mentors and mentees. The chapter first explores the importance of the mentor-mentee relationships, considering both physical and psychological obligations that when breached can lead to unethical mentoring. The body of effective mentorship research is summarized using a learning taxonomy to conclude characteristics and responsibilities of an effective mentor. Finally, drawing from both communication and educational psychology literature, the analysis of both mentor and mentee practices and responsibilities culminates in research grounded, pragmatic advice for both parties.
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All doctoral students know that one day, when they achieve their long awaited aspiration of acquiring that first faculty position, they will be expected to teach and mentor students. However, relatively few faculty members are ever trained in teaching and even fewer are trained in effective mentorship (Anderson, 2010). This pattern is especially noted in the hard sciences.

Because of this, most faculty members have no training in mentorship aside from their personal experience of being mentored while they were in graduate school. This is especially problematic if they had a poor mentor to model themselves after, left only with a list of things not to do, but really no direction as to what should be done. As such, many faculty members begin their careers without a clear view of what an effective mentor-mentee relationship looks like.

Eventually, faculty gain enough experience by trial and error to develop their own list of best practices, but there are two potential fatal flaws in this self-taught mentoring model. First, most mentors teach themselves by thinking about what I as the mentor should be doing and what works for me rather than individual students. This often leads to cookie cutter styles of mentorship that will not fit each of the unique students that the mentor is likely to guide over a career. Second, if a new faculty member does not have a strong model of what effective mentor-mentee relationships are supposed to look like, then the faculty member is more prone to breaching ethical boundaries (Johnson & Huwe, 2002).

Ethical Considerations Type 1: Good Mentoring Relationships Gone Wrong

One of the largest ethical concerns in mentor-mentee relationships is blurred boundaries (Johnson & Nelson, 1999; Pope & Vetter, 1992; Warren, 2005). Effective mentorship involves one-on-one, personalized guidance. Developing the level of closeness necessary to provide this type of guidance requires a great deal of self-disclosure on behalf of the student, which often relies upon reciprocated disclosure from the faculty member. This can often lead to blurred boundaries in the relationship: a delicate balance between a professional relationship and a friendship.

Friendships can be dangerous in a mentor-mentee relationship. When communication becomes strictly interpersonal rather than professional, the relationship dynamics change. Although the student may feel empowered that their faculty mentor clearly sees him or her as an equal, this perceived relationship elevation can also become a burden. Faculty may not feel a need to immediately respond to this mentee’s questions or begin to feel as though it is acceptable to unload emotional baggage upon this mentee because the mentor perceives that the established friendship creates allowances for lack of professionalism. This problem can work in reverse as well. When students perceive that their relationship with a mentor has developed into a friendship, mentees may also expect certain allowances or forgiveness in workplace expectations: deadlines, quality, clarity, etc. In short, the establishment of a friendship can overshadow urgency of the professional relationship, such that the professional aspects of the relationship decrease in productivity.

Also concerning is the danger of faculty engaging in interpersonal relations with multiple mentees. Not all friendships are equivalently close. Mentors who develop friendships with multiple mentees will inevitably find that they are closer to some mentees than others. This risks actual or perceived inequitable treatment of mentees. Such inequitable treatment, perceived or real, can endanger both the mentor and mentee’s reputation, raising suspicion of unethical mentoring practices (Johnson & Huwe, 2002).

An additional concern with the blurred boundaries comes when the relationship changes from professional to romantic. Because mentor-mentee relationships involve an abundance of one-on-one interaction centered upon a shared passion, the shift from a professional to romantic relationship is not uncommon (Johnson & Nelson, 1999). Yet, this shift constitutes an ethical breach because the romantically involved mentor likely does not have the ability to objectively evaluate his or her mentee. Even if the mentor does somehow retain the ability to objectively evaluate a mentee/romantic partner, the perception of objectivity in the evaluation will always be questioned by the members of the academic community who know about the romantic involvement.

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