Mentorship at work and the toxicity of competition

The goodwill and sense of development that a professional mentoring scheme fosters can collapse if personal motivations become blurred

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Competition is inevitable in many aspects of life, including at work. However, there are occasions where support is needed that does not come with any ulterior motives. Mentorship is one of those – it can be an effective tool in creating inclusive workplace cultures, but its success is dependent on how it is understood and implemented.

Mentors will only take on the role to assist and support others if the initiative has been rolled out effectively and their perception is positive, but not all mentors take an altruistic approach. Sometimes, mentors start to compete with their mentees, which can be extremely detrimental to the relationship.

What is a mentor and why are they important?

A mentor is an experienced person who takes time to provide advice and guidance to a less experienced person. It can be on specific topics or more general such as career development. A mentor shares their advice based on their own experiences.

A mentor can be extremely beneficial to help a person navigate through challenges such as joining a new company or accepting a new role with an accompanying learning curve. This could be related to the role itself, the team setup, technical queries, and organisational challenges among others. A mentor can share their own experiences to provide advice and suggestions for next steps and suggest actions that they used that led to a successful outcome.

If the mentor happens to know the organisation and people involved, they may be able to provide a helpful perspective when discussing how to move forward. This can be pivotal in a person’s personal and professional development as mentoring promotes learning, skill development, and guidance.

Mentorship can be particularly effective for students, young professionals, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and employees in the corporate world. It can also be extremely beneficial for individuals from under-recognised groups, including women.

Any mentorship programme or agreement must have clear goals and boundaries, and the mentor-mentee relationship must understand emotional intelligence – i.e. that any initial reaction is driven by emotions before a rational, measured response is provided. The mentor and mentee will work well when this is understood. This will engage, assist, and support nurturing ideas that will help the mentee build their confidence to speak up, assured that their idea is worthy of consideration and promotion. 

When mentorship goes wrong

While there are well-understood benefits of mentorship, there have been examples where the relationship between mentor and mentee breaks down. One example is where one or both in the relationship compete with the other.

Competition can be healthy – for example, when a mentor challenges their mentee to exceed their own expectations.

However, when a mentor feels intimidated by the potential or talent of their mentee, they may no longer be supportive of their mentee succeeding. This may be due to feeling overlooked themselves, a relationship breakdown with their mentee, or not having the right approach when entering into the mentoring relationship – e.g. doing it simply to ‘look good’ or to tick off a development KPI set by a manager.

Any of these reasons can be extremely detrimental. While the mentor may feel like they have an easy ‘win’, this can result in a lack of psychological safety for the mentee, increased stress, anxiety, undermined trust, and can result in the mentee feeling negative about their abilities and skills. In most cases, the mentorship needs to end when this occurs, or a toxic work environment can too quickly take root.

A better approach

One example from my book, Valued at Work: Shining a light on bias to engage, enable, and retain women in STEM is where a mentor tells her mentee ,“I want you to be better than me and do it faster than me”.

This approach removes any suggestion of competition between the two individuals and sets the groundwork for a collaborative and supportive relationship where they can learn from each other. In increasingly competitive environments, it is crucial for everyone to have a ‘safe space’ where they can test ideas and gain advice to progress in their careers.

A core aspect of mentorship is sharing of knowledge and insights, with high levels of trust and collaboration. This approach supports a mentee’s development and creates an environment of psychological safety with their mentor.

However, when a mentor resorts to competing with their mentee, the opposite occurs – reduced sharing of knowledge and insights, erosion of trust and collaboration, and hindered mentee, as well as mentor, development. For inclusive workplace cultures, trust and support is critical. Protecting mentoring relationships from competition and making clear the purpose and desired outcomes is vital for success where trust and collaboration is prioritised, and all are supported.

headshot of Lauren Neal
Lauren Neal

Lauren Neal is the author of Valued at Work: Shining a Light on Bias to Engage, Enable, and Retain Women in STEM

Valued at Work
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