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  • Another Approach to Improving Your Skills as a Mentor: Avoid These Common Mistakes
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Another Approach to Improving Your Skills as a Mentor: Avoid These Common Mistakes

While there are many new tips and tactics to help you become a better mentor to your post-docs and other staff members, you could also improve your mentoring skills just by letting go of bad habits you might have had for years— without recognizing them as such.

Especially when it comes to treating subordinates with respect and allowing them some independence, many principal investigators discover that aspects of their mentoring modus operandi are actually making matters worse, experts say.

Here’s the experts’ list of 10 common mentoring mistakes:

[1] Don’t treat post-docs like the academic-paper equivalent of cash cows. “Once they’re ready to be independent or to move on,” says Maryrose Franko, PhD, senior program officer for graduate science education in the Office of Grants and Special Programs at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., “it doesn’t help to keep a post-doc in the lab just a little while longer to get one more paper.”

[2] Don’t fall into the “constructive criticism” trap. Susan Bender Phelps, a consultant with Odyssey Mentoring, Beaverton, Ore., regards that as one of the least-productive responses a mentor can give. “People respond positively to criticism, no matter how accurate, once every 13 times,” she says.

“That’s especially true in new relationships because the level of trust is so fragile.”

Instead, Phelps suggests “letting your mentees evaluate themselves. Ask if they achieved their expected result.

If not, what do they think got in the way? Ask them to share what worked, what didn’t, what could be improved and what they would do differently if faced with the same situation in the future. Ask them to state specifically what they learned from the experience.”

[3] Don’t treat mentor-mentee conversations like gossip. “Make sure that what is said between the two of you is confidential,” Phelps urges. “Never share anything that could compromise either of you or the relationship. If you are not sure if something you want to share with another will compromise your mentoring relationship, err on the side of caution. The best course is to ask permission before you repeat something from a mentoring conversation to another party.”

[4] Don’t be a diva. “Using scare tactics or lecturing to get someone to perform at a certain level is one of the biggest overall mistakes PIs make in mentoring their post-docs,” says Atlanta-based PI and consultant Glen McDaniel, MS, MBA.

“Most people realize the seriousness of their jobs, so constantly pointing it out will not help develop stronger investigators with better skills or work habits. Instead, it’s likely to produce stress — and it might backfire if it results in lukewarm effort or even deliberate sabotage.”

[5] It bears repeating: Don’t be a diva in another way. “One thing that can quickly sour mentoring relationships, or potential mentoring relationships, is failure,” notes Bob MacLafferty, administrative laboratory director at Copper Basin Medical Center, Copperhill, Tenn.

“What happens when mentees fail? What happens when mentors fail? When mentees fail, what response do they receive from you? Criticism? Comparison to others? Negativity? Or are they presented with an opportunity to honestly and openly share their failures and explore what they have learned? Will they feel affirmed and supported rather than denigrated or belittled?”

MacLafferty adds: “Interestingly, one of the best gifts mentors can give to their mentees is being transparent with their own failures. Being ready to admit failings in the mentor relationship can actually increase the credibility of the mentor by modeling honesty and a willingness to take ownership of mistakes.”

[6] Don’t confuse collaboration with control. Franko says that “not letting mentees take their own projects with them when they start up new labs and not letting them be independent” is among the biggest blunders for a mentor. “

It’s OK to collaborate, but junior faculty need to demonstrate independence from their mentors to funders and their institutions and department heads.”

[7] Don’t be a know-it-all. “One of the biggest mistakes mentors make is trying to lead the relationship and give their sage advice whether it is asked for or not,” Phelps says.

[8] Don’t treat mentees like a nuisance. “Add value to conversations by blocking calls and moving out of sight of incoming e-mails or distracting paperwork,” MacLafferty advises. “Give mentees your undivided attention by taking notes and asking clarifying questions.

Remember that, while being a mentor can be a growth experience for you, it’s not about you. It is about sharing unselfishly with another.”

[9] Don’t try to “own” the mentor-mentee relationship. “A mentor can throw a bucket of cold water on the relationship if he or she is driving it instead of the mentee,” says Joan M. Lakoski, PhD, a PI, associate vice chancellor for academic career development and associate dean for postdoctoral education at the University of Pittsburgh. “We have to let the post-doc grow his or her technical and intellectual skill set.”

[10] Don’t treat post-docs like servants. “Even if someone is a subordinate,” McDaniel says, “that person is a valuable part of your team and contributes to the success of your projects. ‘Just because I said so’ and ‘because I want it’ are approaches that might appear to work — but they will never bring you respect and loyalty.” 

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