Professor of Psychology Wendelyn Shore is passionate about mentorship — not just mentoring and being mentored but also the scholarly pursuit of deconstructing and analyzing the ethics of mentorships.
“There’s always a power differential in a mentoring relationship,” she says. “It’s always the mentor’s responsibility to be sensitive to that and to handle that in an ethical way.”
Shore’s interest in mentorship began with her involvement in developing PLU’s Wild Hope Project and continued when she and PLU psychology colleagues co-wrote multiple papers on the ethics of mentoring undergraduate students. In addition to teaching and scholarly pursuits (her primary research focus is on issues of language and knowledge), she recently co-founded Professional Mentoring Associates with PLU Dean of Students Eva Frey. Through this new venture, she will work with mentees to engage in meaningful self-reflection that allows them to set appropriate goals and then determine and implement strategies for achieving those goals. I recently sat down with her at 208 Garfield.
Have you found that most folks share a similar understanding of what “mentorship” means?
I think that’s right. At some level, everyone knows what mentoring is and what the traditional relationship should look like. A traditional older mentor, younger protege. A very intimate one-on-one relationship. The mentor takes the protege under their wing for learning a particular skill or ability or to provide general guidance and wisdom.
There’s a caring, thoughtfulness, and deep listening required by the mentor that happens in a true mentorship.
Now, I think very few of us in our everyday lives — personal life or professional — actually have achieved that type of mentoring relationship with someone. I think we have lots of approximations to that. Plus, to be honest, I’m not even sure that we should aim for it because there are lots of ethical questions that arise around that ideal.
That’s interesting. Like what?
Well, questions about dependency and appropriate boundaries, or power differential. It’s great to have a mentor, a teacher, a wise other who’s looking out for you, but if that person then starts interfering with aspects of your life or trying to direct aspects of your life, questions should arise about ethics. My work on mentoring started with issues that a mentor has a responsibility to attend to, in terms of the ethics of the ongoing relationship with the mentee. That’s why mentors need training.
Can that training be as a mentee of a great mentor?
It can be. But I also think there’s explicit information that should be conveyed, especially around, again, issues of ethics. I think you explicitly need to say to the 55-year-old white male, “You’re about to start mentoring a 23-year-old black woman. You can’t pretend that the difference in race doesn’t matter, you can’t pretend that the difference in sex doesn’t matter, and you can’t pretend that the difference in age doesn’t matter. To truly mentor this person, you need to be honest about those differences.”
I think that mentors need to hear that explicitly. I think most mentors aren’t necessarily aware that those kinds of demographic differences often create issues for the mentoring relationship around power differential and around boundaries.
Is it hard for institution-wide mentorship programs to work well?
I think what a lot of businesses do are very good professional advising programs. I would not call them mentoring in the traditional sense, but I’ll bet some of those relationships do develop into mentoring relationships. There’s a caring, thoughtfulness, and deep listening required by the mentor that happens in a true mentorship. A senior employee can meet with a junior employee for coffee and give professional advice about how to get promoted, but that’s not true mentoring. Because a mentor needs to learn what motivates you, what your goals are, what kind of work ethic you have, etc. The senior employee can still give great advice without learning those things about the junior employee, but that isn’t mentoring.
Mentoring relationships, whether in the role of mentor or mentee, can be some of the most rewarding and fulfilling relationships we have. They can be relationships that give our lives meaning.
Is there an ideal lifespan to a mentorship?
I think the product of a mentoring interaction can be as short-lived as a single conversation that turns out to be incredibly meaningful and valuable, if not immediately, then down the road. I also think it can be the opposite extreme. It can be a lifelong relationship. My own mentoring relationships as both mentee and mentor certainly run the gamut of that. I’ve had really intense one-on-one conversations with students that afterward we both would have said, “Okay, that was a mentoring conversation.” Then I’ll never have a conversation like that with that student again. But I also have mentees who graduated some 15, 20, 30 years ago and I’m still in touch with them.
What sort of mental space are you in when you’re sitting down with a mentee and do you have particular rules for that time together?
From the mentor’s perspective, what I find myself reminding myself of, or mentally preparing, is this: For however long we’re going to talk — whether it’s a half-hour coffee, a two-hour lunch, or we’re together all afternoon — my mentee has my undivided attention. I make a conscious effort to make it clear to them “I am fully here for you and it’s not about what I have to say.”
That’s the other thing as the mentor, I’m going to absorb and listen. My mentee may not want advice about anything. I don’t know going into that particular meeting. It might just be about, “Hey, I need to talk to you because I just need to process this” and they just need to vent for an hour and a half.
In closing, what encouragement would you share with ResoLute readers who are interested in engaging more intentionally with a potential mentor or mentee in their life?
Mentoring relationships, whether in the role of mentor or mentee, can be some of the most rewarding and fulfilling relationships we have. They can be relationships that give our lives meaning. They represent substantial effort and investment, especially when conducted ethically and thoughtfully. In my experience, they’re worth every bit. Go for it!