Overcoming Differences to Achieve Meaningful Mentoring Relationships
This is the second of six articles that will be written this year as a continuation of the Mentoring Across Differences column, which will highlight mentoring issues and spotlight how lawyers of different racial, gender, and cultural backgrounds can build successful mentoring relationships. Ida O. Abbott, Esq. is the principal of Ida Abbott Consulting (www.IdaAbbott.com), which helps clients create systems and environments where professionals flourish, excel, and advance. She specializes in mentoring and lawyers’ professional development.
Additional information about mentoring and diversity can be found in MCCA’s Mentoring Across Differences: A Guide to Cross-Gender and Cross-Race Mentoring.
Opposites may attract in romance, but not in mentoring. In mentoring relationships, people are drawn by similarities. The less two individuals have in common, the harder it is to initiate a productive relationship. In a diverse workplace, mentors and mentees of different races, genders, and backgrounds must move beyond superficial differences to find the similarities necessary to achieve mentoring goals.
When a potential mentor and mentee meet, they perceive each other as "like me" or "not like me." Their perceived differences may be trivial or significant, depending on what is important to them. But rather than dwelling on differences, if both attorneys search for commonalities, they can concentrate on what matters most in a mentoring relationship: compatible personalities, congruent personal and professional values, and the ability to satisfy each other's mentoring expectations.
The Complex Nature of Perceived Differences
Dealing with interpersonal differences is a complex undertaking—and we do it all the time. We naturally categorize others and ourselves into "identity groups" according to common characteristics (for example, age, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, or organizational status). We self-identify (publicly or privately) with certain groups based on shared characteristics and experiences. We also identify others as belonging to particular groups. This process, while universal, is riddled with errors and misconceptions.
Some differences are visible (for example, age, race, or gender), while others are not (for example, class, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, some mental and physical disabilities). When people first meet, they often have little information about each other besides their visible characteristics. They associate the other person with certain groups based on what they see. Using their own experiences, beliefs, and attitudes, they make assumptions about them—and about their desirability as a mentoring partner—based on group membership. Membership in some groups bestows privileges, while in other groups—notably minority groups—it may result in marginalization or lack of power. Lawyers often avoid mentoring relationships with individuals in stigmatized groups. Consequently, minority status impacts the ease and availability of mentoring. For example, even in a law firm where a majority of all lawyers are women, if only a few women are partners, women constitute a minority. In such firms, women lack power and are therefore less desirable as mentors, and women associates may be marginalized and less desirable as mentees.
At the outset, surface similarities and differences influence the ease and speed at which mentoring relationships form. The fewer identity groups that people have in common, the more "different" they perceive each other to be, and the greater the effort needed to establish a personal connection. Unless both parties dig beneath the surface to discover what they have in common, their differences may prevent a relationship from taking root.
But if both individuals take the time to learn more about each other, they usually discover invisible similarities and affinities. Then the mentor and mentee can make a more informed decision as to whether they are compatible and willing to commit to a mentoring relationship. If they choose to start a mentoring relationship, they will be prepared to build on shared values and interests, address apparent differences, and set mentoring goals and direction.
The Problems with First Impressions
Initial perceptions of a person's group membership are often unreliable and impede formation of mentoring relationships because:
- Visible differences may be misleading. Many individuals do not look like others in their identity group, while some individuals who look like they belong to a particular group do not (for example, people often look older or younger than their actual age).
- A person's self-identity may differ from the identity others attribute to him or her (for example, a third-generation American lawyer of East Indian descent may not see himself as Asian, although others may categorize him that way).
- Membership in the same group does not guarantee shared life experiences, values, or insights. Factors such as historical experience or socioeconomic class create variations within a group that may be more significant than the group's common traits. For example, a white male lawyer from a working class family may have more in common with an African American first-generation attorney than with a white man from an elite, upper-class background.
- Membership in shared identity groups does not assure a successful relationship. People belong to multiple identity groups and attribute varying degrees of importance to them. Even when two individuals have a lot in common, their differences in one salient area may limit the effectiveness of a mentoring relationship. For example, a white gay man and a white lesbian may provide strong mutual support on issues regarding sexual orientation, but political differences may prevent them from connecting in other important ways.
Dealing with Differences
Fortunately, the impact of differences on mentoring relationships changes over time. As the mentor and mentee get to know and respect each other as individuals, superficial differences give way to underlying commonalities such as shared values, backgrounds, and/or interests. Stereotypes fade away. Personal similarities transcend group differences, and many differences become less important. Some differences even complement each other, which may strengthen the relationship. Most important, if both parties discover they share the same values toward their work and profession, the mentoring relationship grows deeper. Both attorneys can form a bond based on the most relevant common ground: as lawyers committed to excellence, learning, and professional growth.
To make this happen in a diverse mentoring relationship requires special effort, including the following steps:
- Take time to get to know each other and seek commonalities. It takes time to find a common basis for a relationship with someone perceived as unlike you because differences initially make people uncomfortable and wary. While mentoring does not require a social friendship, it does require compatibility and friendliness. Try to put each other at ease. Explore personal interests and experiences, such as hobbies and activities you enjoy or where you went to law school. This breaks down the initial discomfort as common factors emerge. Learn if your work habits, communication style, and personalities are compatible enough to allow each person to relate effectively.
- Set mentoring goals. Mentoring is intended to help achieve the mentee's professional goals. Setting specific goals focuses the mentor and mentee on the desired outcomes, which emphasizes shared objectives rather than personal differences. It directs attention to professional endeavors, reveals affinities and values, and clarifies expectations of what will be achieved in the relationship. Working together on shared goals allows both parties to engage in a common effort, become familiar and comfortable with each other, and demonstrate trust-building behaviors.
- Be direct about dealing with differences. Decide together how you will treat your differences. Some mentoring pairs choose to explore diversity issues, while others prefer to disregard them. Either approach is valid. What seems to be most important is that both parties agree on the approach.
- Admit your limitations. Be honest. Admit that you may not understand each other's background, experience, or worldview. It is especially important for majority mentors to share their own vulnerabilities and to accept the other person's weaknesses without judgment.
- Instead of making assumptions, ask questions. The fallibility of assumptions based on perceived differences was discussed earlier in this article. Be aware of the assumptions you make and question their validity. Communicate candidly and tactfully. Offer information about yourself and welcome questions from your mentoring partner. Value and learn from each other's perspectives and let your differences enrich your understanding.
Which Differences Matter
In diverse mentoring relationships, interpersonal differences may impact the ability of mentors to fulfill their mentoring functions. Sometimes the mentor's differences benefit the mentee, while at other times they do not, depending on the mentee's needs and expectations.
Mentors usually expect mentees to be high performers with a strong work ethic and keen intelligence who are eager to learn and succeed. In a diverse mentoring relationship, group-based assumptions and stereotypes may initially hinder a majority mentor's acceptance of a minority mentee. But if the mentor remains open and makes an effort to be fair, there is less likelihood of group-based stereotypes or assumptions having a negative impact on the mentoring pair. Similarly, group assumptions may inhibit the minority mentee's initial acceptance of a majority mentor. Mentees' expectations depend on their individual needs at particular points in their careers. If the mentee is clear about the kind of mentoring assistance he or she desires and is open to what the mentor offers, then most majority mentors can fulfill important mentoring functions for the mentee.
Workplace mentors serve three types of functions: career development, psychosocial support, and role modeling. The following points illustrate how differences affect a mentor's ability to fulfill these functions for a minority mentee.
- Career development assistance is provided through a mentor's skills, insights, and advice. These key elements help a mentee succeed as a lawyer and advance in the organization or profession. For many career functions, such as teaching technical legal skills, the mentor's race and gender are irrelevant. What is essential is that the mentor possess good technical skills and the ability to teach and transfer those skills to another. For providing insight and advice, however, race and gender may be significant factors. A minority mentee will receive valuable advice and insights from a minority mentor who understands and has successfully navigated a majority culture with which the minority mentee is a lot less familiar. In addition, majority mentors can provide insights into majority lawyers' expectations and perceptions, and may offer alternative viewpoints, ideas, and strategies for addressing them, although it might take longer to build this type of comfort level and trust.
- Psychosocial support builds a lawyer's confidence and social integration. For these purposes, the mentor's ability to empathize with the mentee is critical. Empathy may come more readily to members of the same identity group, and minority mentees may be more comfortable discussing personal issues with minority mentors, trusting in their compassion and emotional support. However, members of the same group may fail to appreciate their own biases and may share a perspective that is too narrow. When mentees and mentors are of different race, gender or background, each can and should learn much from the other, particularly by being able to share alternative perspectives and experiences.
- Role modeling enables mentees to select professional and personal qualities to emulate as they develop their professional identities and choose their career paths. Mentees identify with and desire to assimilate aspects of a role model's attitudes, attributes, and behaviors. Mentors are most effective as role models when they have mentees who identify with them based on shared similarities. Differences limit the value of mentors as role models (for example, a lawyer with children may not identify with a lawyer who has no children), although the mentor can show the mentee a range of styles and behaviors they might not otherwise consider.
It is important for lawyers to have mentors with whom they can identify on the basis of shared traits, but it is equally important to have other mentors whose experiences and perspectives are different. Stepping outside group identities and relating to each other personally and as individuals can make even the most diverse relationship valuable. As long as mentors and mentees share fundamental professional values and common objectives, they can transcend differences and enjoy meaningful and beneficial mentoring relationships.
FUNCTIONS OF MENTORS
From the March/April 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®