Mentoring is an activity or relationship that occurs between two or more persons interested in advancing their knowledge, skills or position via a helping relationship. A mentoring relationship is one in which a more skilled or knowledgeable person assists another who possesses less knowledge and/or skill in a particular area. These relationships typically last beyond a single encounter and can be either formal, informal, or some combination of the two. By definition, mentoring begins as a hierarchical relationship in which the mentor and protege engage in a variety of roles and functions to support the protege’s learning and development. Most mentoring relationships follow a predictable path and over time develop into a more collegial relationship that allows for reciprocity and mutuality between the mentor and protege. Although, the concept of mentoring can be traced back to Greek mythology, no systematic studies of mentoring were conducted until the early 1970s.

A Brief History of Mentoring

Mentoring relationships have been documented in the literature since antiquity. The first use of the term mentor is credited to Homer in his third book of the Odyssey. In this Greek myth, Odysseus, a great royal warrior, calls upon his friend Mentor to serve as a guide and advisor to the entire royal household when Odysseus leaves to fight the Trojan wars. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, takes the form of Mentor and accompanies and guides Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, on a journey in search of his father. During this journey, Telemachus strives for and develops a new and fuller identity, hence the parallels between Telemachus’s journey and that of the modern day protege.

Mentor-apprentice relationships have also been documented through the development of artisans’ guilds as a means to pass on particular skills and ways of being. In these settings, a more experienced and typically older adult educated, challenged, and supported the younger adult or protege. The protege remained in the mentoring relationship until he or she learned and could demonstrate the knowledge and practices of that particular craft. The practice of mentoring allowed members of guilds or professions an agreed-upon process through which they could transmit the specific technical and intellectual heritage of their discipline to selected individuals. Thus, mentoring served as means for selection, education, and continuity within professions.

The Nature of Mentoring

Mentoring occurs along a continuum, from formal mentoring at one end to informal mentoring at the other end. The distinguishing characteristics of a formal mentoring relationship describe the nature, purpose, duration, and quality of the contact. In a formal mentoring relationship, the mentor and protege are typically assigned to work with each other, by a third person or group, in order to complete a specific purpose, training, or task. The mentor is clearly in charge and responsible for the work of the protege. The mentor directs the activities without much expectation of a reciprocal relationship from the protege. The relationship remains hierarchical, and the interactions formal. Mentoring ends when the protege has acquired the desired skills or accomplished the specific task. Because the contact is more formal, task-focused, and shorter in duration, mentors and proteges typically do not report much interpersonal support or relational progression.

In contrast, informal mentoring relationships focus less on specific behaviors or tasks of the mentor and protege and more on the nature, quality, and process of interpersonal and professional relationship. Informal mentoring relationships are typically initiated by the protege for the purpose of longer-term personal and professional development. The mentoring relationship is expected to last over time and may or may not have an explicit end. The relationship begins in a somewhat formalized and hierarchical manner and progresses through identifiable stages. In informal mentoring relationships, the mentor and protege experience intensity within the relationship that provides for reciprocity, interpersonal regard, comprehensiveness, appreciation, and gratitude.

Stages of a Mentoring Relationship

Numerous researchers have examined the nature and process of mentoring. Kram has researched mentoring since the early 1980s. She identified four stages of a mentoring relationship that appear to be sequential and developmental. It should be noted that the stage model presented here is one of many in the literature, and there is a lack of agreement among researchers as to what defines a stage, what the duration of a stage is, and what constitutes movement within and between stages. The four stages are initiation, cultivation, separation, and individuality. The stages occur more frequently in informal mentoring relationships.

In the initiation stage, the mentor is idealized by the protege and viewed as all-knowing. In the second stage, cultivation, the mentor provides vocational guidance and personal support. During the separation stage, the protege has become more competent and independent and is able to offer more to the mentor. It is also in this third stage that the mentor is more likely to experience mutuality and reciprocity with the protege. The final stage, individuality, is defined by a sense of dichotomy. That is, the mentor and protege either develop a mutually supportive friendship or they separate feeling used and bitter.

Mentor Roles and Functions

Researchers have suggested that mentors engage proteges from a variety of roles and provide a number of functions. The terms roles and functions are often used interchangeably, yet scholars in the area of mentoring distinguished them as follows. Roles are a series of expected attitudes, dispositions, behaviors, and obligations organized around a specific vocation. Functions are specific behaviors or actions that emanate from specific roles.

A skilled mentor moves in and out of his or her roles effortlessly. The role adopted by a mentor is determined by the stage of the mentoring relationship and often is a blend of several roles. The adoption of a role or roles is subtle and nuanced. The mentor role is related to the perceived, identified, or expressed need(s) of the protege. Mentor roles include: teacher, sponsor, advocate, role model, advisor, evaluator, coach, and supervisor. Knowledge, responsibility, accountability, maturity, and ethical behavior are inherent in the roles of a mentor.

In the early to mid-1980s, Kram and other researchers identified two categories of mentor functions, psychosocial and career. Psychosocial functions are personal in nature and focused on the relationship. The mentor provides acceptance, support, encouragement, advice, guidance, and challenge to the protege. Psychosocial functions provide the foundation for the personal and sometimes intense nature of the mentoring relationship. The career or vocational functions provided by mentors provide the protege opportunities, “plum assignments,” coaching, protection, role modeling, social status, reflected credit, sponsorship, advocacy, visibility and exposure. These functions are provided with the protege’s career goals in mind and are related to the institution or profession in which both are currently engaged. Thus a mentor may introduce a protege to selected influential colleagues at a conference (sponsorship and reflected credit) and encourage them to attend the protege’s presentation (visibility and exposure). This interaction provides the protege a role model of one engaging with professional peers and may, in the long term, enhance the social status of the protege. Mentor functions, like mentor role models, are complex and dynamic interactions that occur as a result of the quality and strength of the relationship.

Benefits and Costs of Mentoring

Mentoring relationships are widely recognized as vital personal and career resources in many disciplines. Mentoring has been an essential element in the training of business professionals, nurses, psychologists, counselors, and educators. There are numerous and detailed accounts of the benefits to the institution, the mentor, and the protege. For the institution, particularly in higher education, researchers report the benefits to be stable, enthusiastic, and productive employees; less employee attrition, lower training cost, and greater scholarly productivity. The benefits to the mentor include the development of a dependable peer-in-training; generativity or giving back to one’s profession; rejuvenation and enrichment of one’s energies, career, and research interests; and working with a person that has the potential to carry on the mentor’s legacy. Proteges benefit from greater socialization into their vocation, improved career and personal performance, higher salaries, and more frequent promotions. In settings such as higher education, proteges have reported that they experienced greater satisfaction with their graduate education, improved postgraduate scholarly productivity, and more ease achieving tenure and promotion once employed in the academy.

Despite the many benefits of mentoring, there are also some barriers or costs related to this process. Researchers have reported that institutions tend to expect professionals to accept preselected proteges without the professional’s input or to provide mentoring to junior colleagues or students without any additional release time, compensation, or resources. The lack of personal involvement and support can lead to professionals feeling confused and burdened, while proteges may be left feeling disregarded. Proteges have reported that mentoring relationships can be confusing or detrimental when the mentor engages in unethical behavior by violating either academic or personal standards of appropriateness.


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  3. Johnson, W. B., & Huwe, J. M. (2003). Getting mentored in graduate school. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  4. Schwiebert, V. (2000). Mentoring: Creating connected, empowered relationships. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

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