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Five Signs that Your Mentor Is Giving You Bad Advice – Robert I. Sutton – Harvard Business Review

December 12, 2013

1.  Are you straying from the path that your mentor has taken?  Piles of research on “social similarity” or “similarity-attraction” effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own and a negative reaction to paths that clash with their past choices.    So if your mentor spent a year working in, say, China as part of his or her career and you are about to turn down a similar opportunity, don’t be surprised if he or she sees it as a mistake.

2. What is in it for them? Will some of your choices benefit your mentor more than others?  The answer might be fairly obvious, but still be something that you (and your mentor, who will have imperfect self-awareness) don’t realize is subtly guiding the advice offered.  For example, if you work closely today with your mentor, and make his or her life easier and more successful, that usually helpful and objective party might have a hard time giving you the best advice about an opportunity that will put you in a different role.  I get annoyed by economists and other behavioral scientists who claim that self-interest is behind every human word and deed – yet there is no denying that it affects every one of us, and more often and more deeply than we realize.

3.  Is your appetite for risk drastically different from your mentors?  If you are more comfortable with risk than your mentor, he or she may caution you against that crazy new startup or bold new project.  I suspect that this was part of the story for Sheryl ; both Google and Facebook were high-risk adventures when she joined.   Mismatches also go the other way. As Huggy Rao observes, if your mentor is a skydiver, races motorcycles, and has a history starting risky projects or doing big risky acquisitions – but the very thought of such things keeps you up at night and makes you physically ill – then you might not want advice from that person on taking a risky job or making a risky decision.

4.  Do you know more than they do?   Just because someone is older and more experienced than you are does not mean that they know more about the particular decision you are making. The more distant they are from the work you do and the business you work in, the more wary you should be.  I suspect, for example, that Sheryl understood Facebook’s potential more than older mentors or those who weren’t so heavily steeped in the industry.

5. Do your peers — and those you lead or mentor — know more about you than your mentor does?   There is a structural problem with many mentor-mentee relationships that I have implied in past writings: A large body of research shows that, in pecking orders of any kind, the people (and in, fact, animals) who have less power attended more closely to and understand those with more power than the other way around (see here and here).  This so called “asymmetry of attention” means that you probably know a lot more about your mentor (who is likely more powerful than you) than your mentor knows about you.   Consider some implications. You may be overestimating how well your mentor knows and understands you as a result (and thus putting too much faith in his or her advice).   Such asymmetry also suggests that your peers, our better yet, the people who you lead and mentor, may give you the best advice.  Indeed, I have argued (going back for some 30 years)  that reverse mentoring is underappreciated and underused by both organizations and individuals.

via Five Signs that Your Mentor Is Giving You Bad Advice – Robert I. Sutton – Harvard Business Review.


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