It’s the ultimate life-dream: To be taken under the wing of a benevolent, all-knowing, paternal mentor, who will surface your strengths and open the doors for you into success. While mentors are a real thing, the rest of life doesn’t always work that way. Mentors have their own lives to tend outside of their protégés; their own separate goals, motivations, and perspectives. In a new piece up by Robert Sutton at the Harvard Business Review, even Sheryl Sandberg warned against taking mentor’s advice without a strong dose of salt.
Here’s a few of the points Sutton says you need to keep in mind:
Are you straying from the path that your mentor has taken? Piles of research on “social similarity” or “similarity-attraction” effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own and a negative reaction to paths that clash with their past choices. So if your mentor spent a year working in, say, China as part of his or her career and you are about to turn down a similar opportunity, don’t be surprised if he or she sees it as a mistake. . .
Do your peers — and those you lead or mentor — know more about you than your mentor does? There is a structural problem with many mentor-mentee relationships that I have implied in past writings: A large body of research shows that, in pecking orders of any kind, the people (and in, fact, animals) who have less power attended more closely to and understand those with more power than the other way around (see here and here). This so called “asymmetry of attention” means that you probably know a lot more about your mentor (who is likely more powerful than you) than your mentor knows about you. Consider some implications. You may be overestimating how well your mentor knows and understands you as a result (and thus putting too much faith in his or her advice). Such asymmetry also suggests that your peers, our better yet, the people who you lead and mentor, may give you the best advice.