National Mentoring Month 2020: Joy…and contemplation

It’s National Mentoring Month and the concentrated focus on and celebration of mentoring brings me joy. There are rich discussions of the definition(s) of mentoring, meaningful enactment, and acknowledgements of the hard work of dedicated mentors being carried out in physical and online spaces (see #NationalMentoringMonth for Twitter-based discussions).

This National Mentoring Month followed the recent release of the NASEM’s (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) consensus study report on The Science of Effective Mentoring in Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine, and Mathematics (STEMM) in late 2019. This report and the accompanying online guide have a wealth of information based on mentorship literature, the thoughtful input of multiple mentoring scholars and experts on inclusive/equitable mentoring, and suggestions for effective implementation.

While I’m encouraged and inspired by ongoing discussions far and wide on the importance of impactful mentoring, I’m also contemplating some ongoing discussions and initiatives related to “mentoring” of minoritized and marginalized scholars in academia. There is growing interest in developing mentoring programs designed to increase diversity among the student ranks and of university faculty. Many of the initiatives focus on recruiting and supporting individuals from underrepresented backgrounds as they enter and transition into graduate programs, postdoctoral training, and ultimately the faculty ranks.

What I’ve been evaluating and contemplating is how many of these efforts still are firmly embedded in, advancing, or are aligned with deficit-based perspectives of the individuals from “diverse” backgrounds whom they seek to recruit and “support”. The deficit perspective – i.e., that you recruit individuals who need targeted or special guidance and assistance in how to “fit in”, survive, and have success in “high performing” environments – is undoubtedly still strongly at play in academic environments, especially at the student level as strongly invoked in most “leaky pipeline” analogies of poor preparation, low performance, ill fit, etc. We are strongly drawn to stories of persistence and grit of minoritized colleagues, which focus on individual traits of making it through a tough system without us asking questions of systems’ fallibility, pipeline blockages, or structural deficits.

These issues of focusing on deficits extend beyond students and also permeate approaches to diversifying the faculty ranks. What is less clear to me is whether there is a sufficient focus on whether the programs that are being deployed are structured as one more hurdle for a minoritized or marginalized person to jump over to show that they are “worthy” of long-term place in a community. Or, alternatively, I ponder whether these efforts are being thoughtfully and intentionally advanced with an equal chance to ask whether there is something in the environment(s) impeding the establishment and flourishing of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds.

So while I’m celebrating a focus on mentoring this month, I’m also asking how and WHEN institutions will start to truly ask questions about historic and persistent system failures to attract, cultivate, and retain a diverse faculty from the perspective of probing what environmental failures and dearth(s) in leadership exist which impede supporting the growth of individuals broadly.

I’m also keen to know when there will be earnest questions asked LOCALLY about the lived experience of those from minoritized and marginalized backgrounds who have entered and persisted in particular contexts. While there are certainly inquiries into this nationally and in other ways, the failure to ask locally can lead to the (false) perspective that the lived experiences of some marginalized individuals and groups are bad – but “we don’t have that problem here!” I contemplate frequently whether there is true interest in understanding whether the lived experience of local marginalized individuals (i.e., what represents climate) matches the institution’s or unit’s espoused values and expressed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (i.e., what represents culture).

We must cultivate the bravery to invite, fully listen to, and reflect on such perspectives, rather than assuming that the persistence of a minoritized or marginalized colleague is a sign of a healthy or supportive environment – or that some significant effort for retaining them has work effectively. A default position that the persistence of minoritized individuals equates to retention will allow institutions to blatantly ignore ongoing environmental or climate issues.

So yes, an opportunity to focus on the importance and power of mentoring during National Mentoring Month brings me joy…but there’s much still to contemplate.

One of the first things I’m contemplating is how radically the conversations would shift if we moved the focus from diversity to equity.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM.

Effective mentors show up healed

Mentoring is hard work, but it can also be challenging to be mentored.

Being mentored requires vulnerability and trust that your mentor is committed to supporting you in YOUR stated goals and aspirations – personal and professional. As recently described in collaborative work with Dr. Stephani Page, this requires that the mentee is actively engaged and provides the mentor with space to grow, openness, active participation, among other things.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for mentors themselves to enter into mentoring relationships prepared to meet the core needs of mentees, which include personalization, guidance, correction, affirmation, and agency (Figure 1; also see Montgomery and Page, 2018).

Figure 1. Core Needs of Mentees from Montgomery and Page, 2018, https://www.nap.edu/resource/25568/Montgomery%20and%20Page%20-%20Mentoring.pdf

Part of this difficulty arises from the knowledge that mentoring too often takes the form of “imprinting”, or mentors training someone to pattern their behavior and actions after the mentors’ or the norm(s) of a group (Montgomery, 2019). This type of imprinting as mentoring often takes the the form of mentors promoting acculturation or assimilation in STEM and the larger academy (Montgomery, 2019). Unfortunately, this is often enacted as an “assimilate or fail mode” (Paris, 2019, p. 219). Too frequently mentors operating in these frameworks are individuals seeking personal affirmation themselves – confirmation for choices they have made including the paths that they have traversed and the goals that they have set.

Effective mentoring must start from a place of mentors being “healed”, i.e., understanding that their own affirmation and self worth cannot become a “group project” requiring specific personal efforts and actions or affirmation of those that they mentor.

Effective mentors SHOW UP healed and are able to mentor from affirmation not for affirmation.

To be clear, poor or negative mentoring can arise from both GOOD and BAD intention. We too frequently assume such mentoring comes only from bad mentors with bad intent. Certainly bad intention can lead to obviously poor mentoring outcomes such as bullying or exploitation (Figure 2). However, even good intent on the part of mentors can lead to negative mentoring experiences such as taking on mentoring when one is not well positioned or not available to offer meaningful guidance or inputs, or other such outcomes (Figure 2).

typology chart
Figure 2. From “The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM”, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25568.
Image from https://www.nap.edu/resource/25568/interactive/mentorship-defined.html#section5

Fortunately, there are many (and continually emerging) options for ensuring that mentors can improve their mentoring skills. One of the latest of these resources is the recent report of the NASEM Committee on the Science of Effective Mentorship – full report now available here.

Fortunately, there is also this summarized advice:

References:

Montgomery, BL (2019). Mentoring as Environmental Stewardship. CSWEP News, 2019(1): 10–12

Montgomery, BL, and Page, SC (2018). Mentoring beyond Hierarchies: Multi-Mentor Systems and Models. Commissioned Paper for National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Effective Mentoring in STEMM.

Paris, Django (2019). Naming beyond the white settler colonial gaze in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 32(3), 217-224.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM

A common futile cycle of leading and being led

There is a serious futile cycle frequently functioning in leadership and mentoring.

Much like the long-held view of futile cycles of biology as reactions which run in opposite directions with no overall effect other than releasing energy, futile cycles in leadership and mentoring are often characterized by lots of activity on the part of the mentor/leader and the mentored/led—in the absence of useful or measurable progress towards a goal.

Most commonly in these futile cycles, mentors or leaders offer ‘affirmation’ or feedback in forms THEY see as valuable; yet, the proffered feedback may not overlap with the feedback desired by the individual being mentored or led (Figure 1).

Where leaders and mentors spend significant energy crafting solutions that are not meeting the needs or desires of specific individuals to which they are offered, two outcomes arise that can undermine the ongoing relationship.

  1. The leader or mentor feels that their effort was unacknowledged or unappreciated, or that the intended recipient of their effort is ungrateful. These interpretations can undermine future commitment or effort or derail building a relationship of trust needed for continued successful leadership and engagement.
  2. When the individual being led or mentored doesn’t receive the feedback or response that aligns with their needs or desires, the individual can often feel unseen, unheard, or undervalued.
Figure 1. Venn diagram of leader/mentor feedback offered and feedback desired by individuals who are being mentored or led.

This outcome of leaders offering feedback that is wholly distinct from that desired arises frequently due to two major causes, among others. The first is the likelihood that the leader offers support or feedback that would have been appreciated by the leader themselves. The second is due to a leader going to a “standard playbook” of responses in a given situation – e.g., recruitment, retention, or other critical times.

Where leaders take time to cultivate relationships of trust and engagement in which those being led can express ‘meaningful desired outcomes’ that support their progress and growth for the leader’s consideration, the likelihood of cultivating overlap between the feedback offered and that desired can lead to mutual appreciation (Figure 1).

Where mutual appreciation is cultivated and achieved, the motivation and ultimately retention of individuals is supported and the drive and engagement of leaders is supported as their energy and efforts are recognized.

An understanding of and cultivated abilities to ethically, equitably, and proactively foster the true relational nature of #leading and #mentoring is something we don’t always screen for, reward, nor fully appreciate in selected leaders or mentors.

We pay high costs in many environments in terms of lost energy, momentum, and trust as we traverse futile cycles that are frequently about misconnections of opportunities to understand and/or affirm values of those we lead and mentor through offering feedback, support and rewards that they individually value.

When futile cycles are prevalent, the cultivation of meaningful relationships between mentors or leaders and those they mentor or lead generally is not.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM