When A Mentor Hurts Your Career

There are no hard numbers that count the total number of career mentorships in U.S. workplaces today, but it’s no secret they exist.

You’ve prbably had — or are having — a mentoring experience of your own. And why not? Mentors can provide sage advice, wag a diplomatic finger and proffer strong guidance for you on your career path. Mentors often have, after all, the wisdom of traveling the same path years before you did. They can tell you where the landmines lie, and where the path lies free and clear.

That’s the good news. Like any relationship, mentorships can have their “lion versus hyena” quality to them. Unfortunately, if your mentor is the lion and you’re the hyena, sooner or later you could get eaten alive.

Better to cut those toxic mentoring ties now, before they damage you in your workplace — and in your career.

What are the red flags that your mentor might not be the Dumbledore to your Harry Potter? Start with these issues:

Your mentor lectures you in public. Great baseball managers know that when you need to chastise a ballplayer, you do it in private. Some mentors don’t know — or worse, don’t bother — to pull you into an office or the corner of an empty coffee shop to point out your career inadequacies. If your mentor is chewing you out in front of other people — especially your coworkers, that’s a red flag. Tip: Do your own “pull aside” in such a situation and generously give your mentor the dignity he or she denied you. Tell them you don’t appreciate being lambasted in public. They’ll either cool down on the pubic displays of disaffection, or you’ll take a walk.

You engage in office politics — and your mentor is on the other side of the battlefield. Hey, office politics happens. Unpopular decisions are made, ambition leads to aggressive behavior over a promotion and choices have to be made over who to let go and who to keep. If you’re involved in these decisions, and cross your mentor if he or she is in the same workplace, pretty soon you’re not exchanging holiday cards, you’re exchanging verbal gunfire. Tip: Give your mentor a heads-up that you’re about to go out on a limb. Your mentor may not respect the decision, but he or she should respect the fact that you let him or her know before the sparks fly. If not, it could be time to bid goodbye.

You can’t get your mentor to return your calls. It hurts to think about it, but it’s possible that, after a while, your mentor just isn’t that into you. If you repeatedly can’t get a reply to a text, or a call back on your cell at a time of crisis, without a good explanation, then what’s there to say? No “tip” here — you know what you have to do.

Your mentor makes it too personal. Mixed-sex mentorships can work, but there is plenty of dry gunpowder lying about when you mentor with the opposite gender. All it takes is one stray flirtatious hot cinder to ignite the whole shooting match — and your reputation in the process. Tip: Try to avoid mentors of the opposite sex. If you insist, establish clear guidelines first. Like Tony Soprano says: “Nothing personal — it’s just business.”

You’re getting bad advice. Nobody’s perfect, and the fact that your mentor talked you into backing the Fishbein deal when, weeks later, it exploded on your desk, isn’t cause for a break-up. But if it happens a few times, then you’ve got a problem. It’s hard to pin down the reasons for bad advice. Tip: It’s you who shouldn't take it personally this time. When the advice grows too ineffective, it’s time to move on.

There are myriad other red flags that may signal your mentorship is on the rocks. Flailing goal development, personality clashes, a poorly written reference, jealousy over a promotion or a big raise or bonus — there’s really no science to recognizing a bad mentoring experience.

But keep an eye out for the triggers laid out above — any one or more of them can tell you what you need to know — it’s time to bench your mentor.

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