Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Hospital Medicine

Thomas R. Collins

May 14, 2021

Your mentor has been looking for someone to help lead a new project in your division, and tells you she's been having a hard time finding someone — but that you would be great. The project isn't something you are very interested in doing and you're already swamped with other projects, but the mentor seems to need the help. What do you do?

Mentor-mentee relationships can be deeply beneficial, but the dynamics — in this situation and many others — can be complex. At SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine, panelists offered guidance on how best to navigate this terrain.

Dr Vineet Arora

Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP, MHM, associate chief medical officer for clinical learning environment at the University of Chicago, suggested that, in the situation involving the mentor's request to an uncertain mentee, the mentee should not give an immediate answer, but consider the pros and cons.

"It's tough when it's somebody who's directly overseeing you," she said. "If you're really truly the best person, they're going to want you in the job, and maybe they'll make it work for you." She said it would be important to find out why the mentor is having trouble finding someone, and suggested the mentee could find someone with whom to discuss it.

Calling mentoring a "team sport," Arora described several types: the traditional mentor who helps many aspects of a mentee's career, a "coach" who helps on a specific project or topic, a "sponsor" that can help elevate a mentee to a bigger opportunity, and a "connector" who can help a mentee begin new career relationships.

"Don't invest in just one person," she said. "Try to get that personal board of directors."

She mentioned six things all mentors should do: Choose mentees carefully, establish a mentorship team, run a tight ship, head off rifts or resolve them, prepare for transitions when they take a new position and might have a new relationship with a mentee, and don't commit "mentorship malpractice."

Mentoring is a two-way street, with both people benefiting and learning, but mentoring can have its troubles, either through active, dysfunctional behavior that's easy to spot, or passive behavior, such as the "bottleneck" problem when a mentor is too preoccupied with his or her own priorities to mentor well, the "country clubber" who mentors only for popularity and social capital but doesn't do the work required, and the "world traveler" who is sought after but has little time for day-to-day mentoring.

Dr Valerie Vaughan

Valerie Vaughan, MD, MSc, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Utah, described four "golden rules" of being a mentee. First, find a CAPE mentor (for capable, availability, projects of interest, and easy to get along with). Then, be respectful of a mentor's time, communicate effectively, and be engaged and energizing.

"Mentors typically don't get paid to mentor and so a lot of them are doing it because they find joy for doing it," Vaughan said. "So as much as you can as a mentee, try to be the person who brings energy to the mentor-mentee relationship. It's up to you to drive projects forward."

Dr Valerie Press

Valerie Press, MD, MPH, SFHM, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, offered tips for men who are mentoring women. She said that, while cross-gender mentorship is common and important, gender-based stereotypes and "unconscious assumptions" are alive and well. Women, she noted, have less access to mentorship and sponsorship, are paid less for the same work, and have high rates of attrition.

Male mentors have to meet the challenge of thinking outside of their own lived experience, combating stereotypes, and addressing these gender-based career disparities, she said.

She suggested that male mentors, for one thing, "rewrite gender scripts," with comments such as, "This is a difficult situation, but I have confidence in you! What do you think your next move should be?" They should also "learn from each other on how to change the power dynamic," and start and participate in conversations involving emotions, since they can be clues to what a mentee is experiencing.

When it comes to pushing for better policies, "be an upstander, not a bystander," Press said.

"Use your organizational power and your social capital," she said. "Use your voice to help make more equitable policies. Don't just leave it to the women's committee to come up with solutions to lack of lactation rooms, or paternity and maternity leave, or better daycare. These are family issues and everybody issues."

Dr Maylyn Martinez

Maylyn S. Martinez, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, suggested that mentors for physicians from minority groups should resist the tendency to view their interests narrowly.

"Don't assume that their interests are going to center on their gender or minority status — invite them to be on projects that have nothing to do with that," she said. They should also not be encouraged to do projects that won't help with career advancement any more than others would be encouraged to take on such projects.

"Be the solution," she said. "Not the problem."

This article originally appeared in The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine

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