Mentorship is often cast as a positive experience. But for every scientist whose mentor enabled a research breakthrough and every high-school student whose mentor was key to receiving a college acceptance letter, there are people whose professional relationships were counterproductive or even damaging. And despite this reality, the potential pitfalls of mentorship are not as often discussed as the benefits of it.

For The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with W. Brad Johnson, a professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy. Johnson talked about how his career came to focus on understanding mentorship, how these relationships can unravel, and what can be done to salvage them if they do. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


B.R.J. O’Donnell: What do you see as the most critical element to get right when it comes to mentorship?

W. Brad Johnson: Intentionality on both sides really matters. If there is one variable that shows if mentorship relationships are likely to take off or not, it's frequency of interaction during the first several months of the relationship. I find that very often mentors are so busy that they may notionally commit to mentoring somebody and then never follow through. And I think an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic. It may unintentionally convey to the mentee that they are just not that worthy or important.

O’Donnell: Some would say that the mentee should just be persistent in a situation like that. When faced with a distant mentor, should they just keep pushing for a response?

Johnson: Sometimes mentees view their mentors as being so accomplished that they have trepidation about approaching them, and they are hesitant to reach out. So if both of those elements are present, what you actually have is two people who just never interact, and that isn’t mentorship.

O’Donnell: In your experience, what is the biggest source of conflict in these relationships?

Johnson: I think if expectations are not aligned, you will often get conflict. If the two parties work to align their expectations around what the relationship is going to be about, and what functions a mentor is going to provide—how they will work together, what the mentor’s role will be in the life of the mentee, and how often they meet—then this is a pitfall that can be sidestepped.

O’Donnell: When mentorship isn’t going as planned, what can improve the situation?

W. Brad Johnson, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy (Image courtesy of W. Brad Johnson)

Johnson: Too often, in any relationship where there is dysfunction, the two people don't talk about it transparently. I would say that basic communication is essential. A mentor can avoid an awful lot of that simply by bringing up their concerns. It can be as straightforward as saying, “I've noticed that you don't drop by anymore. Am I contributing to something that's problematic? Help me understand.”

Also, self-awareness is key. If I'm a busy mentor, and I travel too much, and I don't follow through with mentees, and that leads to hard feelings, then I have to solicit that feedback. And then I have to reflect. Perhaps the way I say things or the way I communicate is tricky and off-putting. If my own personal life is not going well—maybe my primary relationship is on the rocks, and I'm getting needs met, subtly, by mentees, and that's uncomfortable for them—I've got to have self-awareness about that. I think the mentor has got to take responsibility.

O’Donnell: You’ve found romantic attraction to be a problem in some of these relationships. If someone does find themselves attracted to the person on the other side of the desk, what would you say to them?

Johnson: Occasionally, mentors have trouble with ethics and boundaries, and I know that is an issue in academia. It's certainly an issue in corporate contexts. You will find people crossing boundaries, being intrusive, folks initiating romantic relationships. And those things that take away from the focus on the mentee's career trajectory and personal development are toxic, and they can definitely lead to conflict.

I think mentors also need to come to terms with the idea that all of the things that lead to better mentoring may also lead to some attraction at times: self-disclosure, an increasingly bonded, trusting relationship, some measure of increase in warmth. Good boundaries are essential. Just like a mental-health professional might recognize that they have feelings of attraction towards a client, that doesn't give them the green light to act on those feelings. In fact, in the field, there are very clear ethical guidelines prohibiting that, and for very good reason. In my view, it’s never going to be in the best interest of the mentee to sexualize or romanticize that relationship. So I put that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the mentor, to accept but not act on attraction.

O’Donnell: What is the most effective way to approach building these relationships, especially with people who are different from you?

Johnson: I really encourage and counsel humility, and this often comes up in the case of mentorship across differences in gender, differences in race, culture, sexual orientation. You need to be really careful about approaching someone with a different set of experiences from your own, with a sense of humility and a learning orientation. And for me, that goes beyond situations where there is conflict or dysfunction. I would say that humility is one of the hallmarks of really good mentorship in general.