10 Ways to Spot a Toxic Mentor

Mentors are supposed to help us grow. But there are always a few bad apples. Here's how to spot a toxic mentor that won't offer you what you're hoping for from a mentoring relationship.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

May 13, 2021

Updated on 

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10 ways to spot a toxic mentor

Workplace mentoring has become one of the most powerful tools that organizations have to enhance employee engagement, reduce turnover, and boost productivity. Over 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer employee mentorships. These key relationships help participants to develop skills such as communication, managing conflict, and more. 

Mentoring programs in the workplace can take on different shapes and goals such as:

  • Traditional mentoring - senior employee paired with a junior employee
  • Reverse mentoring - junior employee acts as a mentor for a senior employee
  • Flash mentoring - brief, short one-on-one meetings between a mentor and mentee
  • Virtual mentoring - takes place online rather than in-person
  • Group mentoring - One mentor guides several mentees in a group setting
  • Peer mentoring - where a mentor and mentee from the same level in the company are matched together

Some organizations use mentoring to improve diversity and inclusivity, while others use it to expand the skills of their employees. One of the essential factors in a mentoring program is the matches made and the relationships that develop. A mentor can create a lifelong change in a mentee’s life. While most of the experiences of mentorships are positive, some are not. 

How can you spot if your mentor is toxic?

What is a toxic mentor?

The role of a mentor is to guide and teach. When that role is abused, the mentorship becomes toxic for the mentee. Toxic mentors are more likely to control rather than teach. They leave a mentee feeling bad about the experience. 

No one wants to go through a bad mentoring experience. It is essential to know what signs to look for to avoid getting entangled in a toxic mentorship.

10 ways you can spot a toxic mentor

Mentoring at work should be a positive experience. Here are some ways to spot a toxic mentor and get out of the relationship before the lousy experience gets worse. 

1. Self-focused 

A mentor that is more focused on their superiority to a mentee is not in the right mindset to guide anyone. Mentoring is about helping someone else develop their skills and abilities. It is difficult to offer guidance when you only think about yourself.

2. Lack of encouragement 

Toxic mentors fail to acknowledge the accomplishments of mentees. This lack of encouragement is not only disappointing but can also leave a mentee feeling disheartened about their abilities and progress.

3. Unreliable 

It is understandable that mentors are busy and will sometimes have to reschedule meetings, but you might be working with a toxic mentor when it becomes a habit. 

4. Poor listening skills

Good mentors will not need to dominate the conversation. Rather, meetings will include hearing from mentees as well as offering advice.  Listening is one of the key things that you want to have in common with your mentor. Be wary of mentors who take over the conversation. 

5. Failure to admit weakness 

One of the values of mentorship is to learn from another person’s mistakes. If a mentor cannot admit they’ve made errors in the past, they’re likely toxic. 

6. Zero boundaries 

Relationships need boundaries and mentorship is no different. A mentor and mentee should share their expectations with each other at one of the first meetings. It helps if you know the right questions to ask your mentor. If you have a mentor that does not want to define boundaries or fails to respect them, consider them a toxic mentor. Ask to be re-paired. 

7. Shares too much 

Some individuals like to demonstrate how important they are by sharing inappropriate information about others in the office. A mentor who shares too much about people they know will also gossip about you when you are not there. You don’t need that. Consider them toxic and move on. 

8. Berates you

Mentees are not obliged to follow the advice of mentors. If a mentor criticizes you - publicly or privately - for not listening to them it might be time for you to request a re-match from the mentoring program manager. 

9. Lacks sense of humour

Laughing together can cultivate a strong bond between people, including mentors and mentees. Even if your mentor is more serious by nature, they should be able to smile now and again. If not, you may want to find someone else to work with. 

10. Unhelpful advice 

Mentees look to mentors to help them achieve goals and advice on how to handle workplace situations and scenarios. When mentors offer bad advice it can have a long-lasting impact on a mentee. If your mentor regularly offers you bad advice, consider cutting your ties. 

Making the most of mentorships

Good mentors value mentees. And good mentorships are built on trust and respect. Without these vital elements, mentoring can become toxic. There are some things that mentees can do to be sure they don’t get into a bad mentoring situation, such as:

  • go slowly by taking it one meeting at a time 
  • define boundaries early on and stick to them
  • both mentor and mentee should have goals for the mentorship
  • be alert for personality differences
  • set reasonable expectations for the mentorship

Keep in mind that the focus of mentorship is to help the mentor develop, not to create a clone of the mentor. While mentors can make mistakes, when it becomes all about them and less about the mentee, it has turned toxic. 

There will always be some bad apples. But if you find a good mentor make sure you know how to build a strong mentoring relationship. After you have those tips, check out how to set goals with your mentor.

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