The darker side of mentoring

Workplace Mentoring is a process that leads to the development of the protégé, boosts the self esteem of the mentor, and also benefits the firm by preparing the next round of leadership. It seems to be win-win for all concerned. But is the picture in fact so rosy?

Researchers are now becoming more and more aware about the darker side of mentorship.  As far back as the 1980s scholars suggested that such relationships had the potential to become destructive for one or both individuals (Kram, 1980; Feldman, 1999).
What Is Mentoring?

As a verb mentoring is defined as “to advise or train someone, especially a younger colleague” ( Mentoring conjures up the image of an older, wiser, parent-like adult providing guidance and psycho-social support to a younger employee. Very often it is the direct supervisor in the workplace who is paired up by the HR department to mentor a protégé.
What Are Negative Mentoring Experiences (NMEs)? 

NMEs have been defined a “as specific incidents that occur between mentors and proteges, mentors’ characteristic manner of interacting with proteges, or mentors’ characteristics that limit their ability to effectively provide guidance to protégés” (Eby, McManus et al. 2000)

Here are some examples of negative mentoring: 

  • If a mentor creates a profound sense of dependency on himself, this could hinder the protégé from working independently
  • A mentor who is not so committed to the firm, may, through his own example, encourage non-commitment in the protégé too
  • If the protégé is not properly coached by the mentor, this may impede succession planning.

There are also examples of the ‘reluctant mentor’ who is too occupied with his own self-interest and work commitments. Said Sharda, ““I had on more than one occasion spoken to my boss about my desire to learn more in the workplace, but he seemed extremely busy with global visits and with establishing the robustness of some new departments. He just didn’t have time for my professional development.”

Negative Mentoring Relationships Can Last For Years

Some proteges continue in a negative mentoring relationship for years, often because ending the relationship may mean leaving the firm too.

Said Gautam, “Many times I had thought of quitting but that would mean having to quit my job too. This is what held me back because I love my work.” A senior manager, Aditi, continued in a negative mentoring relationship for six years, simply because she loved her work, although she knew her mentor was manipulative and was trying to sabotage her career.

Taniya was in a negative mentoring relationship in the newspaper industry for over a year, but she too did not end the relationship immediately because she felt she was still learning the ropes from peers and from the eco-system. She says, “Also, it would not look good on my resume if I quit the organization within less the year, and so I continued in this relationship, although I was getting nothing out of this in terms of guidance or my professional development.”

Some  protégés don’t quit since they experience both positive and negative experiences with the same mentor, for example in one case a mentor was providing visibility in the firm to his protégé, and yet was simultaneously take credit for the protégé’s ideas.

What Can HR Personnel Do To Ensure Effective Mentoring?

A series of interviews I conducted with proteges from the corporate sector led to rich narratives, parts of which are produced below (the names of the respondents have been changed).  HR personnel may find it useful to see mentoring from the protégé’s perspective :

  • Many proteges say that they would advise others to quit a negative mentoring relationship at the earliest. Says Deepak, “If you feel the relationship is doing nothing for your learning or growth, then get out of such a relationship at the earliest. It’s just not worth it.”
    HR personnel ought to monitor mentoring relationships from the inception, and try and be aware of early signs of difficulty.
  • Aditi said, “It taught me what a mentor should not be. Now that I am in a mentoring role, I make it a point to understand the protégé’s personality and his aspirations and then work with him to make these aspirations possible.
    If the HR personnel has a choice of a mentor, it would be wise to pair up a mentor and protégé who are a personality match.
  • “My mentor did not open doors for me, nor give me access to data that was critical for my growth. I would never do that to any protégé of mine,” said Gauta
    HR personnel need to ensure that mentoring is not restricted to imparting technical skills, but has a much wider ambit, including providing the protégé visibility.
  • “The most important thing is to understand the perspective of the mentee. At times you learn a lot from the mentees also,” said Maneet.
    HR personnel need to ensure that mentoring is seen by the mentor as a two-way relationship.
  • Vinod said, “I would try to understand the person first, his potential and his grey areas. With regard to his grey areas I would teach him to go ahead, especially through my own example.”
    HR personnel need to ensure that the mentor acts as a good role model himself.
  • “What helped me in my toxic relationship with my mentor was that the people that she was reporting to had the wisdom to understand both sides of the story, which helped calm me down.  Maybe the mentors need mentoring or some more training,” said Prithi.
  • Top management also needs to keep an eye on the mentoring process, and wherever required recommend further training for mentors themselves.
    HR personnel need to be vigilant in recognising and then nipping in the bud negative mentoring relationships as these not only hinder the protégé’s growth and cause anxiety, but at times destroy the trust relationship between the mentor and the protégé. Said one protégé, “Whenever I talk to him there is always this suspicion that he is scheming about something. I don’t trust him now. The trust has completely gone.”


  • Eby, L. T., McManus, S. E., Simon, S. A., & Russell, J. E. (2000). The protege’s perspective regarding negative mentoring experiences: The development of a taxonomy. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 57(1), 1-21.
  • Feldman, D. C. (1999). “Toxic mentors or toxic protégés? A critical re-examination of dysfunctional mentoring.” Human Resource Management Review 9(3): 247-278.
  • Kram, K. E. Mentoring processes at work: Developmental relationships in managerial careers. Doctoral dissertation, Yale University, 1980.

(Apart from her scholarly interest in the darker side of mentoring, Prof Payal Kumar also conducts workshops for corporate honchos on “The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring.” She can be contacted on
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Negative capability

My first job was as a journalist working in a highly-stressful editorial office of a leading English newspaper, in which we had to produce four editions of the broadsheet in eight hours. With the amount of news pouring in from the various news agencies and from our roving reporters, there was never any time to eat during the night shift. We survived on hourly cups of tea. I worked here for a decade.

When I became Vice President in a multinational, the pressure of never-ending torrents of emails, phones ringing, meetings and more meetings, videoconferences, recruiting, training and mentoring, took me to new heights, where I was able to operate in a highly stressful environment on a daily basis for six years.

Somewhere amidst these frenzied work environments I had imperceptibly begun to develop coping mechanisms, for example taking an evening walk after office to reflect on the day, before reaching home and spending time with the family. At that time I was not aware of the construct of negativity capability, which apparently includes providing space for reflective inaction while transcending one’s context.

Decision-making in a senior position at a multinational can take place on a minute-to-minute basis, and can be perfected to an art based on years of practice coupled with intuition. But if there was ever a critical report to write, then I would ask for a couple of days to be able to mull over the problem before providing solutions. This stepping back too was a form of negative capability, but again, I had never heard of the term.

When I did hear of this oxymoron from a doctoral scholar, I was quite excited. It was one of those instances in which you have a certain behavioural pattern, but when someone else rationalizes this, it becomes more meaningful. Negative capability, first mentioned by John Keats, is said to consist of components of open-mindedness and suspension of the ego.

Taking negative capability a step further, I choose to move away from the world of work after a 25-year stint, in order to focus on solitary research work. It was as if an overflowing vessel had turned into an empty one, which had to be refilled. It was as if one was wiping clean a slate (tablu rasa, or blank slate, is a term coined by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau).

Initially this was unnerving, to say the least. The world as you know it no longer exists as a reality for you. No mid-managers clamouring for your advice, no preparation required for an international conference, no hiring to be done, and strangely enough – the all-important year-end targets are no longer your concern.

Stepping off the career ‘treadmill’ leads to the inevitable barrage of questions, including: so which organization have you joined? Doubt rears its head. Was this the right thing to do? While small instances of negative capability within a highly structured work-life as operations head is fine, to have a life with seemingly little structure is like being on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, drifting wherever the tide takes you.

And then almost imperceptibly something happens. Reading become more meaningful, your own creative juices seemingly become more active, and there is a strange, indescribable feeling of contentment. It’s like the stillness after a storm. Years of meting out instructions and advice, turn into hours of solitude and reflection.

Said Castellano (2010), to be able to allow everything, there must first be nothing. In a state of negative capability, a kind of suspended animation, there is a peculiar contentment ‘in drifting with the tide’ and in simply ‘being.’

Does a bottoms-up approach really work?

I was amazed when, at a theatre workshop that I attended, the facilitator told us that we would come up with a plot, dialogues and would then perform a 40-minute play in front of our family and friends in two days time. He has got to be joking, I thought. Doesn’t it take days just to memorize dialogues?
We began by sitting in small groups, brainstorming the plot. Then the groups merged into one large whole, and shared storylines, which developed further even during the actual narration. Once the best story was selected we started to “get into the skin” of the protagonists.
My corporate training to have a clear objective, train and guide one’s team members accordingly and THEN achieve results, was totally shattered by this informal way of meandering towards a goal from all sorts of directions. Yet in the end we did achieve the objective, which was to put up a creditable performance that was lauded and applauded!
Does the bottoms-up approach really work? One national group that I know began a decade ago as a decentralized set-up, with various individualized sub groups dispersed throughout the country. Yet now there is talk of a need for structure to meet certain objectives, and the in-group and out-group model of Leader-membership exchange model is becoming more perceptible.
While the bottoms-up approach is more democratic and perhaps more conducive to creative thinkers as a leadership style, I question whether it is actually sustainable in the long run.

The library

It’s funny how the library has always been a fundamental part of my life. At first I became a frequent visitor of our school library, not really for the books, but because it was a sanctuary of sorts. It was a place I could while away my time during the lunch hour, while the other kids were busy in the playground. Given that I was one of the few non-white students at our school in Manchester, pairing up with any of the other students as friend was not a viable option.
And so I would go to the library. That way no one would taunt me for being alone. The teachers became impressed by my regular presence there over seven years and soon I was asked to become a library monitor. It was a place I would silently flick through books, and wonder why Jesus said he was “the Word,” or why some authors wrote that Hindus were fatalistic because they believed in karma.
A few years later when I went to university I would spend long hours at the library. Here, I had friends, so my visits were not to while away time. It was to actually study! And of course to take advantage of the central heating. It was freezing at Lancaster, and I would feel so desperately cold that I would be the only student wearing fingerless gloves IN the library. I enjoyed reading the likes of S Radhakrishnan, the hypnotic words of Sufi mystics, the parables of the Buddha and the Sermon on the Mount.
And even later, as a Master of Arts student in Religious Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, sitting in the library was a hedonic experience. Here, the architecture was such that one could see floors of books by simply gazing up, as if to the Almighty. I enjoyed spending hours flicking through the Dharmashastras, trying to fathom the true meaning of dharma.
Today, they tell me I am middle aged, but you can still find me in the library! Now I am pursuing my doctoral from a leading business school in India. I have many friends, and the country is quite warm, so no need for central heating!
I guess at last I am a visitor to the university library for no other reason other than reading and researching! Ironically now there is no reason for me to visit the library as I have online access to most of the books and journals that I require. But still, being surrounded by books and by bibliophiles, is an experience to be relished.
And so my need for the library still exists. It’s only the reasons that have changed. Earlier it was a sanctuary, then it became a place where I discovered the richness of religious texts of world religions – the exquisite knowledge of centuries condensed in the form of the printed word. Today the library has become an integral part of my life. It is my sanctum sanctorum, an inviobaly private place to which I retire when I seek answers.

Here is a love story … Lily

When Lily walked, everybody watched. Riveted. Her grace, her poise, her suppleness. It was like watching a silken sheet ruffling in the wind. Or like a stream of water, each wave curling effortlessly into the other.
“‘Lily, the guests will be here. Hurry up and get ready,” her mother shouted from downstairs.
“Chill mom, I’ll be another five minutes, that’s all.”
It was Lily’s 21st birthday, and the house was decked like a bride, adorned with lights and decorations. The generous flower arrangement added bursts of colour to the bungalow, while the scent of rose and lavender lingered.
“Vijay and Deepak! Why on earth are you both loitering outside her bedroom? Let her get ready for the party.”
“Yes aunty,” said Vijay sheepishly.
“No way aunty! You know we have spent days toiling for her party, and now that everything is ready, you want us to go away! We are here to escort her to the party, ” said Deepak.
He winked at Vijay and added, ” Now auntyji, YOU be on your way. we continue to wait for Lily.”
Lily and her mother, the universal aunty Sharma, were both soft natured and popular, but they both looked remarkably different. Lily was tall AND had an hour glass figure. She was the epitomy of effortless grace, and her beauty was hypnotic. Lily was mesmerizing. Her mother was not.
Mrs Sharma had the same fair complexion and airbrushed pink cheeks, but she had was short and stout. In fact if she carried on putting on weight the way she was, in a few years time her width and height would be the same! And her nose was more triangular, while Lily’s was slender and regal.
It’s amazing how the shape of one’s nose can have such a significant impact on one’s perception of beauty! Aunty Verma had told Lily for years, “You have the best nose in our family,” as if this was some great achievement, like winning a beauty contest.


Editing counts for academic papers!

“The biggest problem I think many writers face is that when they write for a particular journal, they don’t pay attention to ideas and suggestions about the stylesheet and simply submit their paper expecting others to sort this out for them.”
Prof Menski, Managing Editor, South Asia Research

Contact me in case you need the following services:-
1. Simple language editing, and ensuring stylistic consistency as per the journal guidelines.
2. A rewriting of the document if English is not your first language.

Does your article/research paper need editing?

In case you are a scholar who is about to send a paper to a journal for publication, or if you have received a revise and resubmit comment that your paper needs editing and proof reading, please contact me via the contact form at the bottom of this post.

I can put you in touch with excellent editors (in the humanities, social sciences and management areas), who can provide one of the following services at competitive rates:-

1. Simple language editing, and ensuring stylistic consistency as per the journal guidelines.

2. A rewriting of the document if English is not your first language.

The packaging of your paper certainly increases your chances of publication. An Academy of Management journal reviewer said: “Through my work as an editor and my research in impression management I have found that creating the “prettiest” paper goes a long way in increasing the confidence your reviewers have in you.”