Mentor for Good Judgment

Remember Odysseus? He was the long-ago CEO of an island called Ithaca. When he left to fight in the Trojan War, he asked a trusted friend to watch over his infant son.

He wanted the child to be safe, of course—wanted him to learn that fire is hot and that cliffs are not to be dangled from. And he had to learn the basics, like how to work the family fax machine. But Odysseus also wanted his friend to teach the boy how to think well and how to act ethically.

His friend’s name was Mentor.

Today, we give the name “mentor” to someone who goes beyond babysitting, instilling not just knowledge but also organizational values and judgment in new employees. And one of the most important aspects of mentoring done right is helping the new employee understand how to treat others in the organization.

It’s not uncommon for a new employee to look for ways to distinguish him or herself from the herd. Since everyone else has a head start, some new folks try to tear others down to make themselves look better by comparison.

If you are mentor to an employee who shows this tendency, know that it will only get worse if not nipped in the bud. And with it come dysfunction, disturbance, and a reduction in productivity.

Start by understanding where such behavior comes from. It’s a symptom of low self-esteem, something that’s common in new employees. The dynamic is similar to gossip—that person feels that the only way they can feel good about themselves is by knocking others down in hopes that they get a leg up in the process. Of course it never works that way.

I would suggest bringing it up directly, ideally right after it has happened. Name it, then make it clear that it won’t do. “I notice that you sometimes tear others down. When you do that, it creates a mess. So my request is that you don’t do that anymore.” Go straight into the eye of the needle on that behavior. Some behaviors are deniable, and some can be masked as something else. Not this one. It’s easy to call out and hard to deny, especially if it just happened moments before.

Be aware that you may or may not get the result you want. Stay in the high intention of doing the right thing and low attachment to what happens in the end. Know that you are not ultimately accountable for how or whether the behavior changes—that’s on the other person. Let go of co-dependence to change the person, but do everything you can to help them make a good choice.

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