Like a lot of terminology in the helping professions, the word ‘boundaries’ has crossed over in recent years into the public domain. As is often the case, the concept of boundaries in mentoring is rather more nuanced than we find in its daily use. Boundaries give shape and structure to mentoring. They help us to recognise mentoring’s limitations. However, boundaries also offer freedom, creativity and safety. Here, we offer some brief examples of where we are likely to encounter boundaries in mentoring and explore the role that they play in delivering good quality practice.
Where do we encounter boundaries in mentoring?
The nature of mentoring
Knowing what mentoring is and how we can use it, enables us to create boundaries that are productive. In a work setting, for example, mentoring is often used to address career advancement and professional development. By contrast, it is not appropriate for addressing issues of mental health. Understanding the difference can help us to know when to signpost a mentee to more appropriate alternative support.
Setting mentoring programme goals
When establishing a mentoring programme, defining a clear purpose and goals contributes to its boundaries. For example, a programme for new starters will aim to grow mentees’ organisational knowledge and sense of belonging in their opening months. This mentoring may surface other needs such as skills gaps. In this case, the role of the mentor is not to help the mentee to address those gaps. Instead, a mentor can help them to take notice of what has come up as a prompt for a development conversation with their new line manager.
Agreeing expectations and boundaries in mentoring
An essential element of a mentor’s role is to establish healthy boundaries by leading the process of contracting. Contracting means defining mutually agreed expectations of the mentoring and of each other. It involves establishing realistic goals and identifying the role that a mentor will play in helping a mentee to achieve them.
Contracting also means clarifying logistical boundaries such as the duration and frequency of meetings. And it serves to reinforce responsibilities, such as maintaining appropriate conduct (e.g. respecting confidentiality and other personal boundaries).
As well as possessing and sharing domain-specific knowledge or expertise, mentors make use of a range of interpersonal skills (e.g. listening and providing supportive feedback). Recognising the boundaries of our experience and competence helps us to know when to further develop our skills or to signpost a mentee towards alternative support. As a mentor, recognising our limitations also means paying attention to our health and wellbeing; ensuring we can be at our best when we meet our mentees.
Conflicts of interest and the shadow side of mentoring
Mentoring raises the potential for another type of boundary issue — conflicts of interest. Organisations can manage some conflicts of interest by matching mentees with mentors outside of their respective business areas.
In other respects, a mentor may encounter a conflict where their personal motivation to help is more pronounced than their mentee’s need for support. In Supervision in the Helping Professions, Hawkins and Shohet describe this as the shadow side of helping. Conflicts may also arise from a mentor (or mentee) who fails to make suitable provision for mentoring alongside other commitments.
What is the impact of poorly managed boundaries mentoring?
The consequences (ethical and practical) of not establishing or maintaining appropriate boundaries can be significant. It may lead to misunderstandings or undermine trust between the mentor and mentee (or with parties outside of the mentoring relationship, like the mentee’s line manager). It can lead to a breakdown in the mentoring relationship, have a negative impact on mentoring outcomes or cause reputational damage to the mentoring programme.
Dependency is another pitfall of poorly managed boundaries. Here the mentee (and/or mentor) come to rely unduly on the mentoring relationship to meet an unconscious need. At its most extreme, a boundary breach may result in a complaint or a conduct issue against the mentor on an organisational level.
How can we guard against boundary issues in mentoring?
Providing training and ongoing development to mentoring participants is known to improve the quality of mentoring outcomes. Increase the likelihood of achieving positive results by offering opportunities within mentoring training to:
- clarify roles to identify boundaries,
- identify where issues can arise, and
- show how to manage issues that do arise.
Encourage regular critical reflection on mentoring experiences, for example, mentoring supervision. This helps mentors maintain healthy boundaries and increases the likelihood of achieving positive mentoring outcomes. Get in touch if you want to talk more about boundaries in mentoring, just leave a reply below, or join a live discussion on boundaries in mentoring in January 2024.
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