A work mentor is supposed to be someone you can rely on, whether for solid career advice or help bouncing back after a bad day at the office. But even if they have a respected title or decades of experience, they're only human, and it's natural that at some point or another, they might let you down. Knowing what to do when your work mentor disappoints you, though, can be a challenge, especially when you want — or need — to maintain the relationship.
Take Victoria, 37, who had a mentor for all of one hour when she knew they were not a good fit. As she tells Mic, she’d been paired with him through the Small Business Association, which connects entrepreneurs with experienced mentors, yet a phone call quickly informed her that although he was her "match," the dynamic was "far from perfect." As Victoria provided him with information, he began openly making fun of her. Before, she’d been excited to have a mentor, “but when I realized he was laughing at me," she recalls, "my heart sank.”
Yet instead of calling him out, she kept the conversation going, keeping her answers to short responses. “I don’t know why I didn’t say something,” Victoria says now. “A simple, direct, ‘Why are you laughing at me?’ would have sufficed, I’m sure.”
Allison, 31, also struggled with how to handle a mentor's insulting behavior. She recalls to Mic how, as a "struggling writer," she'd connected with a successful writer via email and was excited to have an opportunity to meet in-person a few years later. Yet while talking, "I saw my mentor roll her eyes regarding something I said," she says. “It was like a bad online date.” After a few more eye rolls, Allison was done. “I never spoke to her again; I was afraid of what I’d say, so I said nothing at all,” she says now. “She didn’t contact me either.”
No matter how long they've been your mentor, a person transforming from your number one cheerleader to someone who doesn't have your back — say, by not vouching for you for a promotion or going over your head on a deal — can be a deeply upsetting experience. Yet as Victoria and Allison's stories demonstrate, figuring out what to do when this situation happens can be tricky, to say the least. Here, career experts share their advice on how to cope when your mentor lets you down.
1. Get some perspective
“It is easy to put a respected mentor on a pedestal, and assume they can do no wrong,” Nicole Wood, CEO & Co-Founder of Ama La Vida, tells Mic. “However, this is an unrealistic expectation given that mentors, despite their wisdom and status, are also humans.”
If your mentor does something that hurts you, but they otherwise have a good track record, take a breath before reacting. “When you see your mentor make a mistake and disappoint you, first take a step back and recognize that no one is perfect,” says Wood. “They, too, are on a lifelong journey of growth and development.”
Christie Lindor, management consultant, author, and host of the podcast "The MECE Muse Unplugged", adds that if your mentor's frustrating behavior feels like it came out of nowhere, consider that there may be a deeper root cause. “Take a moment to investigate if there is something bigger going on in your mentor’s life, such as family, career, or health problems,” she tells Mic. “Being supportive, patient, and empathetic during your mentor’s time of need can pay dividends in cementing a lifelong mentoring relationship.”
2. Look back at your expectations
Whether in the workplace or not, countless interpersonal issues stem from simple miscommunications. Before addressing a problem with your mentor, Lindor says to ask yourself: were the roles and objectives of the mentee-mentor relationship clear to you both? That includes how often you wanted to meet, what advice you hoped to get, and how involved you wanted your mentor to be in your career.
“Think about the origins of the relationship, too,” adds Lindor. “Did you mutually agree on the overall mentor-mentee expectations? And did you have a clear ask of the support you were looking for and an approach/plan on how you were both going to tackle this need?”
Once you answer these questions for yourself, you'll be able to determine whether your feelings are truly justified, or if your mentor wasn't actually out of line. And to avoid issues going forward, you can make sure to "share what you’re specifically looking for in the relationship" with your mentor, says Lindor, by "giving examples of what success looks like for you as a mentee."
3. Prepare to give them feedback
If your mentor clearly recognizes their mistake and has apologized, there’s no need to jump in with more criticism. That said, if they don't realize what they did wrong, giving them (respectful) feedback is totally OK. “Mentorship is a two-way street,” says Wood. “Of course, the natural flow of mentorship is the mentor providing the mentee with advice and insight, but it can happen in reverse also and is actually the sign of a very productive mentor relationship. “
When bringing up an issue to your mentor, Wood says to first make it clear that you know they have your back, before describing the behavior and how it made you feel. At the end, if the atmosphere feels right, you can provide suggestions on how you think a situation like that could be avoided in the future.
Wood adds that a good mentor should accept and appreciate your feedback, even if it stings at first, as they'll hopefuly want to continue improving in their role.
4. Internalize the lesson(s) learned
If things aren’t working out with your mentor, it might be disheartening, but it might also be a good opportunity for inward reflection. “When working with a mentor, you aren’t just learning from their successes, but you are also learning from their mistakes and failures,” says Wood. “Try to consider how this situation could have been prevented and what the key takeaway is."
Watching your mentor mess up will hopefully stop you from doing the same thing yourself one day, and make it clear to you what you want future mentors to do differently.
5. Look for a new mentor
Unfortunately, if you find that you’re continually disappointed by your mentor, it may be time to part ways. “It would be unfair to ditch you mentor simply because they made an honest mistake, but if it seems to happen repeatedly, it could be a sign that this mentoring relationship is no longer a good fit,” says Wood.
Perhaps you've realized that you and your mentor no longer share the same values, so you view decisions and behavior differently, or maybe you've found that you're no longer learning from the relationship. Whatever the reason for the split — barring unethical behavior by the mentor — try to part on good terms, adds Lindor.
“Mentors are like friends — they come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime — and you never know where/how someone in your past may show up again in the future,” she says. “Be grateful for the time your mentor did share with you, stay connected and share updates about your career as an open invitation to rekindle the relationship, and ask your mentor if they know others in their network that may be willing to work with you.”
If you’re in the market for a new mentor, LinkedIn career expert Blair Decembrele tells Mic that networking online can be a great tool. “Start to seek out people in your network who are in roles that you find interesting or in industries that you’d like to break into," she advises, adding that her company's research has found that “more than 80 percent of LinkedIn members want to have a mentor or be one to others."
So if you’re currently feeling so disappointed by your mentor that you think you just can't work things out, don’t lose hope; know that there’s likely someone else out there who'll be a much better fit.