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The company I work for has a mandatory mentoring program. Every employee is mentored by his line manager. I have meetings with my mentor every two to three weeks. The idea is to talk about areas I want to improve in and my mentor supports my growth.

However I am discovering that my mentor uses these sessions to learn about my weak spots, and then uses that knowledge to erode my confidence and sabotage my career.

How do I best deal with the situation?

Update: Let me share a concrete example. I work in a technical role on a team of 7 people. As I am the most senior one on the team and I enjoy taking up responsibility I have informally moved in a leadership role within the team. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with my colleagues and making sure they have everything they need to work at their best. Within the team we have a fantastic collaboration and a great spirit. Me and my colleagues are in daily contact, they often contact me to get my input on challenges, and although the project is challenging we often find time for a little chit chat and some jokes. This is something that every member of the team enjoys and frequently mentions in our retrospective meetings. With the upcoming reorganization I will formally receive a leadership title.

I am more on the introvert side of the spectrum. I successfully worked in consulting roles for 10 years and this has never been a real issue. Still when my mentor asked me in what areas I would like to improve, I told him I want to get better at small talk to enable me to more easily and quickly connect to customers and stake holders.

I was able to considerably improve my skills and get in good contact with many people in our office and the customer's office.

However in a recent meeting my mentor insisted that there is no progress what so ever without even asking for input. Which is interesting, as he works on a different floor and we rarely bump into each other. He then went on to ask me about the relation to every single one of my team colleagues. Just to then tell me that I was wrong and my relationship to my team colleagues is terrible. Which again is interesting as my mentor does not work on the team. I am pretty sure he hasn't even talked once to most of my team colleagues.

He then went on to stress in a threatening voice that small talk skills are critical to a leadership role. He insisted that the connection to my team colleagues is so bad that I impossibly can influence them. He hinted at stopping my already announced promotion. (I know from a different source that this is not even in his decision power. This decision has been taken by more senior management. And I got excellent feedback from the senior management.)

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    Could you give some examples of how your manager is attempting to sabotage your career? I'm wondering if this could be a "tough love" kind of management/mentoring. Apr 30, 2023 at 9:14
  • There is an upcoming reorganization. In this reorganization I will formally move in a more senior role. In a recent mentoring session my mentor made statements indicating that I am unfit for that new position because of a lack in skills that are not central for the new role. I have the very strong hunch that my mentor will now try to convince the management team to change their mind. In all fairness I cannot prove what is going on behind closed doors. So I could be wrong.
    – Theo
    Apr 30, 2023 at 9:40
  • @Theo What were those statements specifically?
    – Helena
    Apr 30, 2023 at 17:07
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    @Theo Based on the current explanation, there is nothing to indicate that your mentor is being malicious towards you. They don't think you're ready for a more senior position. It is not unreasonable for a company to listen to a mentor's opinion on the applicant's abilities. If you believe this feedback to be malicious, please do elaborate what/how/why it is the case. Note that just because you don't think a certain skill is an essential skill, that this means that you're therefore correct. Maybe you not seeing this as an essential skill contributes to the root of the problem?
    – Flater
    May 1, 2023 at 2:40

4 Answers 4

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I worked with such kind of people before. Assuming you say is true and you are not hiding anything, if you agree this is not a sustainable way of working and ready for some confrontation (and possibly risk getting fired -- depending where the wind in your company blows and whether your mentor has been flagged before):

  1. Capture everything your mentor says in writing and then take it to HR saying this is just not true and he tries to downplay your achievements and skills as well as delivering the feedback in an unprofessional way (raising voice and being aggressive).
  2. Request for an independent 360-degree feedback from your team as a proof of your words.
  3. Explain that you are fine with mentorship but your mentor is biased. In this light, ask that you are reviewed independently by another mentor (or, failing that, that someone else is present when you meet with your mentor).

When you do everything above, do not lose your calm.

Good luck!

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Your mentor may be right, or they may be wrong, or you might just be miscommunicating with each other. But since you cannot seem to escape these mentoring sessions I agree with others here that it seems best to try to make them as constructive as possible. Here are some ideas for concrete things you might do or say which will help achieve that:

  • When introducing a topic for improvement (eg wanting to get better at smalltalk) ask your mentor what good progress would look like. Make sure these are really concrete and easy to recognise. Write these down.
  • If the two of you can't think of what good progress would look like on a particular issue then ask who in the organisation does that well. Then ask how you know they do it well - what behaviours can you see in them that shows this?
  • Aim to do some of these "what good progress would look like" things before the next mentoring session.
  • During a mentoring session take notes. Try to be as detailed as possible. If your mentor comments on some of your behaviour it's helpful to write down their exact words, so there's no confusion later.
  • Recap your notes at the end of the session with your mentor. When you do this, do it in way that is positive (or at least, not negative) to your mentor. For example, you might mention that it's to get the most out of the mentoring session, that it will help you focus on improvement, etc. When recapping you can say things like, "You said that I was XYZ..." using their exact words. This gives them the chance to correct or adjust what they said or meant.
  • Prepare for each mentoring session. Before each session review your notes from the previous session, including the things on the "what good progress would look like" list. Against each one, note how you've done - and be honest. You might not have made progress on some.
  • In your mentoring session recap those "good progress" actions with your mentor and explain how much you've achieved them. This is your evidence - things such as commendations and complaints need to be based on evidence. Hopefully this will all be evidence for (another) future promotion, one day.
  • If your mentor says something surprising (whether or not it's negative) ask, "what have you seen or heard that makes you say that?" Make sure you really understand what they're describing. You might ask "can you give me an example of that?" See if you can get a specific example - so you can actually picture the scene of the incident your mentor is talking about.
  • If you think your mentor is saying something incorrect (eg they say your relationship with person X is terrible, but you've had good feedback from person X) then say explain that in an objective way. Eg "That's surprising. You say person X told you A, and I'm sure that's true, but when I was with them they/we said/did B. Why do think that might be?" There might be an answer you can both work out together.
  • After receiving feedback then, as @keshlam says, it's good to say "Thank you" gracefully - even though the feedback can be difficult to hear.

With all of that you might better understand what your mentor is saying. Or you might discover that what they are saying is entirely baseless. If the latter is the case, then at least you've got a written record of all the conversations and details, in case it becomes useful later.

(And as an aside, I find it very odd that your mentor is your line manager. Usually mentors are a few steps removed from the mentee, so that they can give a more dispassionate view of things. But I guess that's question for another time and place.)

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As someone who has met similar people, the lesson I learned was not to take things personally. Even when meaning well, people are sometimes just plain bad at expressing themselves when they give feedback - the tone, the body language all make a difference and very few people have mastered the art of giving constructive criticism.

There might be multiple reasons why this mentor was unable to communicate well about the feedback - he might have had similar mentees in the past who did not respond well or you might even remind him of his previous self so he's able to pick out the flaw/improvements easier or he feels that you progressed way faster in your career compared to him and feels insecure or he just has bad communication skills.

However, the key thing to look at is, in the heart of your heart, do you recognize the feedback and acknowledge it as an improvement area for you? If yes, continue working on it and don't be too bothered by his 'attacks' or waste time on it. It's important to remember that feedback is not an absolute truth, it's an observation and it's up to you to take it or leave it. It's also good to remember that sometimes your naysayers can help you grow much more than your friends if you take it in the right spirit.

Stay confident and good luck :)

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Pointing out areas for improvement is neither "eroding confidence" or "sabotaging career". The goal is to help YOU understand your weak spots, and correct them, and skills which are not central may still be important-to-essential. Part of a mentor's job is to help you see what matters more than you think it does.

I suggest you take the feedback calmly, give it due consideration, and work to improve the targeted areas whether you think they're necessary or not.

If all else fails, ask the manager whom you will be under after the reorg if they'd consider starting now as your mentor.

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  • Thank you for your answer, @keshlam. I fully agree with your first sentence. However this is not my situation. The areas are brought up by me. The "eroding confidence" is downplaying / ignoring / denying any demonstrable progress without even taking any interest in it and at the same time picking on perceived failures of mine for minutes while measuring my performance in minor areas to extremely high standards and scaring me into thinking this might be career ending.
    – Theo
    Apr 30, 2023 at 17:57
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    ASK them if this is career ending. Don't assume. And listen with an open mind; it is quite possible that they are trying to save your career. Performance IS measured to high standards, in the long run and sometimes even in the short run. Or, if you really think they're offbase and you're sure the transfer is coming so you won't have to deal with them much longer, say "Thank you for your input" and ignore them... and hope you're reading it correctly.
    – keshlam
    Apr 30, 2023 at 19:31
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    I've listened with an open mind for half a year. Only to eventually realize that the more I accept the input the more "flaws" my mentor finds and the more he picks on me. At the same time I get great feedback from everyone else. Unfortunately even with the upcomming reorganization he most probably will remain my direct line manager.
    – Theo
    Apr 30, 2023 at 19:59
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    Not being there, I can't argue with your perceptions. I can't imagine what they would be getting out of it if so. Seriously, if you can't deal with this individual and it IS this individual, you should be concentrating on moving to a new management chain. Ask your second-line manager whether there's somewhere else in the group that you could be useful.
    – keshlam
    Apr 30, 2023 at 23:45
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    @Theo: Your comments are consistently vague to the point of being unable to distinguish whether your mentor is being overly pedantic of if you're being overly sensitive. Without a concrete example, it is impossible to help you navigate towards the right course of action.
    – Flater
    May 1, 2023 at 2:43

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