How mentoring relationships must evolve over time: Kudos to the New York Times’ Workologist

I recently stumbled on this letter submitted by a reader to the New York Times “Workologist” column. In short, the reader was a mentor experiencing a feeling of general distance to a (former) protégé, for whom the mentor felt could still benefit from some of his/her guidance. The Workologist appropriately acknowledged that for the protégé, it was likely “important that at some point this person feels that her professional identity is hers, and not just some reflected-glory side effect of her association with you.”


This is not an uncommon experience, where a protégé and mentor need to work through adjustments to their relationship as each person evolves in his/her own career. In our own work Bess Rouse and I explore this dynamic; and we similarly emphasize the core identity processes at play as a mentoring relationship evolves.


Early on in mentoring relationships, it’s common and normal for both parties to operate under assumptions about the other based on projections (i.e., the mentor may see a former version of herself in the protégé and the protégé may envision a future version of herself in the mentor). But in order for the relationship to evolve toward a high quality and generative relationship over time, both parties must shift toward connecting with one another based on present identities. For example, they may recognize a similar struggle with balancing work demands and childcare, fostering a connection relevant to who they each are in the present. This shift from projections to present understandings of one another is arguably most important during the separation phase of mentoring, the very phase the Workologist’ reader is grappling with. According to Kathy Kram’s foundational work, this phase can last between 6 months and two years, and is likely to cause some strain on the relationship.


What does this mean for the Workologist’s reader (and other mentors in a similar position)? Our work suggests this mentor’s best approach when he/she meets with the former protégé may be to focus less on advice-giving in a traditional sense, and more about connecting authentically with each other as people with common present interests and goals (perhaps even non-career related ones). This may be the best way for the relationship to be redefined into a sustainable and mutually generative high-quality connection.

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