When mentoring turns toxic

Sometimes mentoring comes with a dark side.
Sometimes mentoring comes with a dark side.
Image: Flickr/Timothy L. Hale
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When successful executives like Richard Branson and Marissa Mayer offer career advice, they often talk about the importance of finding a mentor. There’s no doubt that young professionals can reap huge benefits from the advice and expertise of established people in their fields. But what happens when a mentor expects too much in return?

This was the dilemma I confronted at my first job as an assistant at an ad agency three decades ago. I looked up to my creative supervisor right away. He was a family man who exuded confidence. Although not traditionally handsome, he had a twinkle in his eye that won him admiration from men and women alike. When he spoke to you, it seemed that you were the only person he was interested in listening to.

After a little over a year of paying my dues at the company, I heard that a new spot had opened up in his group for a junior writer. I asked him to look at my portfolio, and within a matter of days, I was a newly minted copywriter.

I felt indebted to the man who had plucked me from the secretarial pool and put me in the job I’d been trying to get since college graduation. I also appreciated that he allowed me to present to clients from the get-go. And I was flattered when he cited me as inspiration in a speech to an advertising group, emphasizing the importance of hanging onto the enthusiasm that came naturally to young professionals.

But I soon learned my mentor wanted his boss’s job as creative director. Upper management had told him that he would remain in his supervisory capacity until the creative director left, got fired, or died. So my mentor crafted a plan to get his boss ousted—with assistance from his loyal underlings.

One day, my mentor pulled me aside and said he needed my help. He wanted to show the powers-that-be that the creative director could not manage our small group of writers and art directors. Saying that he trusted only me, he asked me to persuade my colleagues to keep the creative director out of the loop. We would refuse to make changes to his commercial scripts and print ads, and argue with him when we disagreed with his directions.

I was still starry-eyed after receiving a promotion and felt a blind loyalty to the person who’d made it happen. It didn’t even occur to me that he’d ask me to do anything wrong.

Little did I know that it’s surprisingly common for mentors to cross the line with their protégés. In fact, “mentor-on-mentee” aggression is a common feature in many mentoring relationships, according to a 2009 paper by philosophy professor Richard T. McClelland.

In a best-case scenario, mentors induct young people into the traditions of their professions. But this dynamic can set the stage for destructive behavior, McClelland writes. Sometimes mentors try to stamp out daring ideas that threaten long-held principles in their fields. Others may see themselves as “gatekeepers” whose role is to cut upstarts down to size. And basic narcissism may lead mentors to act out when they feel threatened by promising protégés.

Mentoring relationships can also go awry when young professionals feel beholden to their advisers. Hero-worship is a frequent issue, as business administration professor Jeffrey Gandz tells The Globe and Mail. He suggests that mentees take steps to avoid relying too much on one person’s perspective.

“You want to have multiple sources of mentoring, without being a pest to people,” Gandz tells the paper. “You don’t want to be the mentoring equivalent of my cocker spaniel—‘Please, please, please, pay attention to me!’”

Of course, I didn’t know all this in my youth. When the creative director continued to occupy the corner office despite our efforts at sabotage, my mentor decided to step up his game. He suggested that I, along with my colleagues, orchestrate a meeting with human resrouces to air our grievances.

He assured us that we’d have a receptive audience. “They don’t like him down there either,” he said.

My boyfriend at the time, a lawyer, told me not to participate. But I felt that I owed this last push to my mentor, since he had believed in me enough to put my career on track.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. The HR director likened our confab to “the students complaining about the teacher.” The agency would get rid of us, and hire an entirely new staff, before displacing the boss.

My coworkers were angry at our supervisor for convincing them he’d had their best interests at heart. I was just hurt. My mentor knew that I wasn’t a trust-fund baby and had yet to build up any savings. I needed—and wanted—my job. How could he put it in jeopardy?

When I went to talk to him, he simply shrugged and shuffled some papers on his desk.

“What did you expect when you go whine about a vice president?”

That was when I knew it was time to extricate myself from under his wing. I realized that the only thing I had ever owed my mentor was the work I’d been hired to do.

When he tried to enlist me into his next caper, I said no. Soon he’d made another copywriter into his latest fair-haired girl, giving her all the plum assignments.

Meanwhile, our relationship quickly soured. The day before I left for a well-deserved vacation, my mentor let me know he had “some really great copywriters’ portfolios” lying around his office. He wanted me to spend the next two weeks at the beach worrying that he was interviewing my replacement.

While he complimented my art director’s layouts as if they were worthy of being hung in the Louvre, he made me rewrite copy over and over again, changing direction with each draft. In the end, we usually went back to my first version.

I’d like to blame our damaged relationship on the fact that he was a man. But in comparing notes with friends who had female mentors, I found that they had their own sets of problems. An account executive had developed such a great relationship with a client that her jealous mentor nearly fired her. Another friend openly disagreed with her advisor and found herself disinvited to meetings.

In my case, I decided that the best thing to do was to start mentoring myself. I began reading books by business leaders I admired, seeking out advice on how to deal with adversarial colleagues, negotiate for raises, and generally be more professional.

Eventually, I left my position at the agency for a new job. My mentor seemed almost sad at the news. Perhaps he’d thought that by giving me the cold shoulder he could get me to crawl back to my former role as a wide-eyed novice, willing to do whatever he wanted.

“I can’t believe I’m losing you,” he said. I couldn’t believe that he was surprised. When mentors take advantage of the people they’re meant to instruct and advise, loss is the only possible outcome.