by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones

Puzzle build

Have you been asked to mentor a mentee who seems very different from you? Do you wonder what you could offer in the way of mentoring and at the same time dread making a mistake with this individual?

The Mentoring Group calls this type of assistance “cross-difference mentoring.” While mentors and mentees always differ in some ways, when the differences seem particularly large to either or both parties, we give it this name.

You may recognize one key difference such as race, age, culture, language, religion, style, job function, gender, or upbringing. Or you could find you and your partner differ on several dimensions. Your first instinct when this happens is probably to say, “I want somebody else!”

I’m hoping that you’ll see cross-difference mentoring as an exciting chance to experience and learn something new. In this article and in the second part next month, you’ll see ideas to consider as you venture across differences. Let’s start by recognizing what could be standing in the way of your comfort and effectiveness.

Obstacles in Cross-Difference Mentoring

  1. Negative stereotypes: You, like all of us, could be unconsciously holding onto some unfair generalities about a group. They’re slow, pushy, selfish, silly, weird. You could be skeptical: “What’s his/her real agenda?” Overcoming mindsets, we’ve had from childhood, perhaps from our parents, or from even one negative example we’ve encountered is a major challenge.
  2. Difficulty identifying with him/her: Especially at first, we think we’re totally different: “I can’t see any of me in her/him.” The more pronounced the differences, when nothing is done to bridge the gap, the slower the bonding. I’ve seen this challenge in “reverse mentoring,” when, for example an older male army sergeant tries to mentor a young female lieutenant.
  3. Scrutiny by others: Perhaps in your organization, even if diversity and inclusion are valued, some cross-difference mentoring relationships are still rare and therefore are noticeable. People focus on and even scrutinize them, which may make you feel uncomfortable.
  4. Resentment by peers: Others may act jealous or imply that your mentee doesn’t deserve the benefits he/she is getting. One mentor commented, “I tried very hard to be available to all the people in the department. But I invariably got criticized if I gave more mentoring to one person.”
  5. “Protective Hesitation”: David Thomas in an April 2001 Harvard Business Review article uses this concept. It means that the two of you are likely to treat the relationship as more fragile than other relationships you have. You may be less willing to open up about sensitive issues and be afraid of confrontation because you don’t want to offend or be thought of as anti-____ (fill in the blank).
  6. Actual Mistakes: Unless you’ve had lots of experience working with someone with these characteristics (and even if you have), you’re likely to make real mistakes. You really will say or do some wrong things! Lois Zachary talks about cross-cultural differences in her book, The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships. You can make errors when you assume the two of you think the same and value the same rules of protocol, time and punctuality, special distance, authority figures (including mentors), decision-making processes, appropriate humor, etc. If you’ve made a mistake in the past and suffered the consequences, you’re likely very hesitant to venture there again.

These challenges aren’t small. However, reflecting on this list, adding to it, asking ourselves when and how we’ve experienced these hurdles, and sharing with one another about our experiences will start to make us better mentors. Please send your comments and stories to