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Internet Survey Results:

Mentoring Boundaries: what's fair game for the discussion?
Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.

(For individual usage only, not to be used in team building, organizational publications or training programs)

Mentoring is an interpersonal relationship where many topics could be discussed with counsel from the mentor. During the first half of 2009, we posted a survey on our internet site asking if everything in the partner?s life is fair game or are certain topics out of bounds? Note we use the term partner instead of mentee which reminds us of either an after dinner mint or an inhabitant of the Florida inner costal waterways and is not a word.

Ninety-nine people responded to the survey; in evaluating the response keep in mind these caveats:

  • The survey asked only about ?business mentoring relationships.? Would the results be different if we asked about all mentoring relationships?
  • Twenty-nine topics were listed as potentials for respondents to rate; the list is far from exhaustive.
  • The respondents are random; we know nothing about their background or frame of reference.

Mentoring: Two Schools of Thought

To oversimplify one school of thought views mentoring as holistic, dealing with the entire person and their lives or as one respondent stated: ?If you are going to improve, you have to review all aspects of yourself.?  The other views business mentoring as focusing only on business related issues as summarized by this comment: ?The business mentor is not a therapist.?  Both thought were supported in the survey; however, the aggregate results favors the narrower business related issues only view.

Survey Says

It appears that there are three distinct groupings of the responses

1.  Out of Bounds
Topic % selection "In Bounds"
Religious practices 21
Political beliefs 24
Marital problems 29
Weight 31
Racial, Ethnic, or Gender issues 41
Family or other personal issues 41
Physical fitness 47

These are clearly personal issues and decisions. Or as one respondent commented: ?The mentor should not dabble into the private life of the partner.  If these issues are raised, the advice given should be to see a therapist.?  Those who subscribe to the holistic view of mentoring would differ as reflected by their vote that these topic be ?in bounds? for discussion. 

Somewhat surprising are two topics: Racial, ethnic or gender issues and Family or other personal issues. Of any topics in this group, these two have the potential of negatively impacting a partner?s career and progress. An argument could be made that counsel or opinions could be offered in all of these areas to the partner but that it is the partner?s choice in what to do with this advice.

2.  It Depends

Topic % selection "In Bounds"
Financial planning 58
Alcohol or drug use 58
Health 62
Personality quirks 62
Intellectual shortfalls 65
Confidential information or issues 67
Retirement planning 75
Salary expectations 78
Appearance 82
Dress 84

The business mentor is usually sought out to help the partner best achieve their career and personal goals. The topics in this group could definitely present obstacles to the partner and areas where an experience mentor could help, e.g., Personality quirks. By ?It Depends? we mean if clear expectations for the mentoring relationship have been established and a trusting, supportive relationship exists. As one respondent stated: ?Discussed only in a trusting relationship and if brought up by the partner?Many of these I would not raise but if the partner raised them as issues they should be addressed.?

3.  In Bounds

Topic % selection "In Bounds"
Performance deficiencies 91
Integrity 93
Advancement expectations 94
Technical deficiencies 94
Work-life balance 06
Ethical conduct 96
Training or education needed 97
Leve of commitment 97
Career changes 98
How to advance in ones career 98
Motivation problems 98
Team player obstacles 99

Little surprise here, these topics received high agreement as being in bounds for business mentoring discussions by all participants. Why not, they deal with either how to improve in a current position or what is needed to be done to grow and develop. As an aside, these performance and development topics are more comfortable than the personal topics; however, one would conjecture from other research that they are not openly discussed. The top rated topic, Team player obstacles, reinforces that functioning as a team member is critical in today?s business world.

What Do Mentors Do?

In the final analysis, a mentoring relationship is a personal matter. There are no formulas or set rules about what is comfortable discussion within the mentoring relationship. What is important is that the mentor and partner discuss and agree on what their expectations are for the relationships and what areas are ?in? or ?out? of bounds. This can change over time; the important thing is to make these agreements explicit so there is no misunderstanding. With a high level of mutual trust and support, a discussion of what is important at the time to both parties should be the defining factor not an arbitrary list of topics.

Contact Matt Starcevich, matt@coachingandmentoring
Copyright, 2009, Center for Coaching and Mentoring