About a year and a half ago, I began a series of conversations with an MD in Academic Medicine, who was interested in restarting the mentoring program at her medical center. She knew it would be a complex and significant undertaking.
One ‘problem’ is the massive body of research on mentoring in the professions.
Also, mentoring isn’t something to enter into lightly. Mentoring interactions can be intense, and memorable, as this physician recalled from her own med school days.
I’m sharing here some ways of thinking about mentoring that may be helpful to you–whether you are a mentor, have a mentor, or want a mentor.
Mentoring is a form of education
Why am I writing about mentoring, on a site dedicated to health communication?
If you’ve read across this site or heard my podcast series, you know I advocate for collaboration. I recommend using many of my communication and education strategies and tools alongside some like-minded colleagues. I believe in the value of learning, in communities, across the professional lifespan.
I’ve also been researching mentoring in education and in business over the past 9 years.
With this physician, I dove into the research on mentoring in health care, specifically around preparing physicians and nurses. I wanted to help her think about mentoring in an individual and programmatic way. To begin to guide her as she looked back on her time as a mentee. And at the formal and informal mentoring she does currently. And at what it might mean to lead the restarting of a mentoring program at her institution.
I won’t pretend this is a simple topic to write about, certainly not in a short space. But I have been thinking back on what I said and did with this physician. I offer here one way to help make sense of the complexity around mentoring.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s no lack of research on mentoring in the professions. The health sector has taken up mentoring with gusto over the last decade. PubMed had over a thousand hits for “mentoring” in 2016 (1,083) and 2017 (1,040).
And there’s so much to choose from. There are different models of mentoring, different types of mentoring, different definitions of mentoring, as well as (contested) differences between mentoring, supervision, and apprenticeship.
However, “Despite its inherent value, mentoring appears to be less abundant or available than it should be” as pointed out by the authors of this article about the role of mentoring in modern medical education.
Sure, informal mentoring can and does happen anywhere. Some medical schools provide one-to-one mentoring or small-group mentoring.
But you’re here because you are interested in mentoring. Maybe you’re mentoring or being mentored, formally or informally. You are in the midst of it, in one way or another. And it’s you I want to support.
Addressing Implicit Bias Audiobook Bundle 2nd Edition
All purchases help support our podcast series! This newly updated and expanded bundle of audiobook, eBook, and supplementary materials will help you address unconscious or implicit bias in your language as a health professional. 2 hours of practical, culturally and linguistically relevant advice and research-based tools, in an unfussy, conversational format. Discounted class sets and institutional copies available.
The four questions
I’m not recommending a program or model or approach.
Instead, this is a way to organize your thoughts, with an eye toward program cohesion. That’s because I don’t want you undermining your goals unintentionally.
For instance, if you value collaboration in your roles and relationships, you don’t want all your assessments to reward competitive behaviors.
That is, you don’t want your priorities in one area to accidentally conflict with priorities in another. And this can be trickier than it sounds.
So whether you’re looking to evaluate a program or just want ways to think about mentoring, here are some questions you might ask, to help you have a clear head about what you are doing.
1. Purposes: where do you want to go and how do you think mentoring will help get there?
This is the big question, isn’t it?
And programs answer it very differently. One takeaway from this review of literature from 2000-2008 is how different mentoring program goals are in medicine. Some possibilities include:
- Career choices and academic advancement
- Provider preparation for diversity and equity
- Individual growth and career advancement
- Development of talent in terms of career trajectories, research output, or building the pipeline
Your purpose for engaging in mentoring is essential to define. Different models of mentoring might be more or less applicable depending on your purpose.
What do you think are or should be the goals of the mentoring program at your institution? What do you have in mind that is NOT captured by those goals?
2. Roles and relationships: who’s there, why, and what do they have to do with each other?
Being a good provider is important, but is not synonymous with being a good mentor or mentee. Plentiful research looks at the roles that mentors and mentees do and ought to play. This includes the traits that good mentors/mentees ought to have.
There’s a range of ways people mentor well—it depends on what you consider the purpose of mentoring to be (among other things). I’ll encourage you to think about what happens if you, or those involved with mentoring in your organization, aren’t simply born with ‘good’ mentor/mentee qualities? How are these provided?
Mentors roles and responsibilities, and their reasons for being involved, vary widely. The delightfully titled Being a Mentor: What’s in It for Me? looks across disciplines and draws attention to the bottom line for mentors.
Mentoring is sometimes characterized as a relationship, rather than a set of roles with a set of preconceived duties. But this does not make things easier.
The study Having the Right Chemistry: A Qualitative Study of Mentoring in Academic Medicine, “uncovers the complexity of the mentoring relationship.” the authors argue that “Mentoring relationships are key to developing productive careers in academic medicine, but such alliances hold a certain ‘‘mystery.’’
3. Form and content of mentoring interactions: When and where do you interact, and what do you do together?
This is about logistics and structure. Consider what mechanisms are in place, or needed, for ongoing collaboration and support of everyone involved. How are you facilitating professional learning, in keeping with your purpose? Consider:
- Do you speak in person? Do you email?
- Does it make sense to have a usual meeting location, or will ad-hoc interactions be enough?
- What counts as a mentoring interaction? Are a certain number of interactions expected?
- What are the expectations for what will (and won’t) be done or talked about? (This article talks about some varied topics covered in mentoring interactions)
- Is this voluntary or required? Does mentoring ‘count’ in your organization? How?
- What institutional structures could support the kinds of mentoring you are enacting? Think of common meeting times, already existing collaborations or initiatives, etc.
4. Assessment/evaluation: what are the mechanisms by which mentoring is assessed and evaluated?
This is about your tools, resources, or strategies for evaluation and assessment.
Think carefully about the assessments or observational instruments used to assess the progress and performance of mentors and mentees. This 5 year study of a large-scale mentoring program for medical students found that “defining ideal program evaluation strategies” remains challenging.
There’s no shortage of assessments out there. I encourage you to think about choosing instruments that reflect your purpose.
How do they reflect the roles and responsibilities you’ve set out for the participants?
What about those ‘failing’ mentees who do not achieve traditional benchmarks?
Keep in mind that assessments sometimes are tied to the observable performance of specific skills–rather than the more complex and less easily observable facets of professional learning and growth processes.
Let’s be honest here: it’s also about institutional expectations. Are you going to have to demonstrate replicable ideas of “what works”? Will you be asked to give reports of mentoring program success? If your work is funded, what do funders want to see, and what kinds of evaluation might serve your purposes and their requirements?
Mentoring in a time of rapid change
Mentoring is hard work. It costs money (contrary to what some people think). And it doesn’t happen overnight.
After talking with this physician, I find myself wondering if traditional notions of mentoring are sufficient to address the changing conditions of health care and health education. It would seem that the conceptual underpinnings of mentoring programs need to be responsive to the realities of the field.
Yet whatever arrangement exists in your organization, it would seem helpful to have space for new ways of thinking about–and enacting—mentoring. Ways that can be locally developed in response to those arrangements, and the needs of the people involved.
How about talking with a mentor, mentee, or just some nice colleagues, about how you ‘do’ patient education? Perhaps unconscious bias in everyday language? Or assessing each others’ patient communication?
If you are interested in taking your language use seriously, why not start with your metaphors? This workshop shows you how to break down the metaphors you use, understand their cognitive and affective aspects, and evaluate them in use. On demand, right on this site.