Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jun 22, 2005

Workplace Dangers: The "Predatory Mentor"

Freshman Seminar with Miss Minchin - Session 1

While the idea of forming a relationship with a more experienced professional to guide you as you traverse the treacherous waters of corporate life may be appealing, one must take care to avoid the dangers.

What was once a common technique in ensuring the "old boys network" of yesteryear has been transformed into a powerful tool for women to help each other break through the glass ceiling. At its best, mentoring is an altruistic commitment to help develop another's skills and career, while only acting in the best interest of the mentee. At its worst, it is a tool of manipulation, politics and abuse.

Bad mentoring is like "Bad touching"
It started one day after a meeting. I was invited to lunch with a new female manager who I had come to respect and admire. I was looking for a role model, and with so few female leaders in my world, I was easily impressed by her skills. When she asked me to lunch, I felt pleased that she had noticed my talent enough to take a special interest in me.

"You know I'm a big fan of yours," she said fastening her seatbelt as we headed out to lunch.

"I'm a big fan of yours!" I gushed, stunned to find my regard reciprocated.

At lunch I was so pleased to be getting job advice and to have someone listen to my work problems, that I didn't notice how the questions kept steering me toward issues with my boss. I didn't realize how useful the information would be to her.

"You know, I'd like to mentor you" she declared 'spontaneously'.

She quoted someone about the rewards of altruism, and explained what a pleasure it would be to offer assistance to someone as competent and talented as I. Looking back I see this was all her plan from the beginning, but at the time I was emotional at the kindness she was showing me. To me she was my fairy godmother.

"But we should keep this between us. I will treat anything you tell me as a confidence, and I trust you will do the same."

Warning signs
After several monthly "mentoring" lunches, I gradually became aware of what was going on. Ideas and thoughts that I had shared were turning into *her* ideas. My position on how our teams at work could work better together suddenly became her brilliant philosophy. She was feeding me inaccuracies about my boss, and constantly digging for "dirt". And very little of our time together was dedicated to helping me with my career.

In retrospect, I didn't receive any advice that I couldn't have skimmed from the back cover of "Careers for Dummies". It wasn't until the day that I caught her in a lie, after which she burst into tears about how she missed our friendship, that I could no longer deny that it was all a scheme. When I didn't fall for her desperate attempt at manipulation, the tears immediately stopped and so did the "mentoring".

What's in it for the "mentor"?
I learned the hard way that there are manipulative women out there who will take advantage of the sisterhood for their own gain. Guides on office politics advise these machiavellians to "Groom princes and princesses". The techinique is to "hitch yourself to a rising star". This serves several nefarious purposes:

  1. By offering your assistance to someone who is bound to succeed without your help, you give yourself the opportunity to take some credit for their accomplishments
  2. By making the mentee feel you are responsible for their success, she will then feel indebted to you and will want to return the favor someday
  3. By developing your own personal cheerleader, you ensure that you are spoken highly of in
    her circles.
  4. You can gather information that you would not otherwise have access to, which you can
    then use against your colleagues and for your own gain.
  5. You can steer her toward projects or positions which will better serve your needs, to help make you look good.
Anatomy of a predator
I see now how particularly vulnerable I was to her brand of manipulation. Transitioning between two very male managers, in a mostly male department, I found myself constantly misunderstood and underappreciated. I felt overworked and undervalued, and after the way some conflicts I had had with my "bosses" played out I also felt betrayed and depressed. The perfect conditions for an unscrupulous "advisor".

Predatory mentors are just like other types of predators, who seek out vulnerable and easy targets. Consider the online predator:

"Online predators try to gradually seduce their targets through attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts, and often devote considerable time, money, and energy to this effort. ... They listen to and sympathize with kids' problems."

The pedophile:

"They play the game slowly. They befriend the child, play with them, and get to know them. They see their chance to advance the game, and they take each calculated move as it comes. Each step is carefully planned to draw the child closer to them. They gain their trust, reinforce it, then eventually violate it.

Just like these predators, the Predatory Mentor:

  • detects the vulnerable target, and gains her trust
  • makes her feel "special" with attention, gifts ("here's a book I thought would be helpful"), and compliments
  • listens and sympathizes
  • then gradually abuses that confidence to serve their own needs.
Some mentors use their powers for good
Mentors can be extremely valuable. To avoid the pitfalls, here are a few things to look for:

  1. Find a mentor outside of your company. You not only want to avoid any appearance of special treatment due to your relationship with your mentor, but you also want to avoid the opportunity for your relationship to be abused. Several mentoring organizations exist for professional women who truly want to give back.
  2. Think carefully about what the mentor may get out of the relationship. Be sure that you do not choose a mentor in a competitive company to yours, or who may be good friends with the CEO. Also, be wary of anyone who offers to mentor you who you have not known for long. A good mentor will not enter into the relationship lightly, and will take very seriously the influence she can have on your career.
  3. Be prepared to break it off. Recognize when a relationship is not working. Like any relationship you may not have the right chemistry, you may not be getting the time investment that you need or you may not be getting good advice.
Mentor yourself
Many women simply don't have enough self-confidence. You know your value to your company, so act like it. You have done a pretty good job making decisions up to this point about what's right for you and your career, so trust yourself to do what's right. Seek guidance from trustworthy sources and trust your gut.

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