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Mentorship – One Shoe Does Not Fit All

Sally (Protégé): My mentoring relationship with Bill just isn’t working out.

Mentorship Coordinator: Tell me more about that Sally. What issues are you having?

Sally: Our personalities don’t mesh. He doesn’t want to help me. When I am struggling with an issue, he asks me questions but he doesn’t help me with what I really should be doing. I feel less and less confident in approaching him for help.

Mentorship Coordinator: What makes you think that?

Sally: He doesn’t give me any feedback when I do make a decision. I don’t know if he thinks that is the best approach. I need more from him. I don’t feel like he is supporting me the way I need to be supported. He doesn’t want to help me. I don’t think our personalities match.


Bill (Mentor): I don’t think I am the right fit with Sally.

Mentorship Coordinator: Tell me about that Bill. What issues are you having?

Bill: I think we have a personality conflict. Sally doesn’t want to think on her own. It’s frustrating. I don’t think I’m a good match for her.

Mentorship Coordinator: What makes you think that?

Bill: She doesn’t want to make decisions. She wants me to tell her step by step what she should do. I try to guide her along, but it she gets upset when I do that. I know she has the intelligence to make the right decisions, but she doesn’t want to do that. And she needs constant affirmation that she’s doing the right thing. By the end of our mentoring meetings, we are both frustrated.


Have you been involved in or noticed a mentoring relationship that did not work? My experience with developing and implementing a mentorship program at a professional organization made me realize that even with the best intentions a mentoring relationship sometimes does not work. The above scenarios were adapted from real life feedback. I came across a research paper recently that made me realize we need to approach the mentoring relationship in a more adaptive way.

Adaptive Mentorship© is a model that focuses on mentors adjusting their mentorship behaviour in response to the task-specific development level of protégés they are assisting in the learning/employment situation.(Ralph and Walker, 2010)

Ralph and Walker suggest that unsuccessful mentorship relationships are often the result of mentor “mismatching their adaptive responses with protégés task-specific developmental levels.”

In Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence we learned that some things are beyond our control and other things are not. This is true in a mentor and protégé relationship where some things are beyond immediate control such as organizational structure and culture. But both the mentor and the protégé do have control over their own behaviour. When you have control over your own behaviour you can respond and adapt your responses. A mentor can change his/her mentorship response to get the best from his/her protégé and a protégé can learn to ask for the support he/her needs to succeed.

When explaining the Adaptive Mentorship© model Ralph and Walker state that both the mentor and the protégé can adapt their responses to each other.

Mentors have control over and can change their response by adapting their:

  • “task” response (the amount of direction given regarding the technical, mechanical, or procedural aspect of the protégé’s performance), and
  • “support” response (the degree of expression regarding the “human” or psycho/social/emotional aspect of the protégé’s learning).

For the protégés, the key element over which they have most control is their competency level in performing particular tasks. They have control over their:

  • developmental “competence” level (their ability to perform the task),and
  • developmental “confidence” level (the degree of self-assurance, composure, and feelings of security in performing).

Adaptive Mentorship

Visual Explained

  • If the protégé has low competence and high confidence (D1), then the mentor responds by providing high task direction and low emotional support (A1).
  • If the protégé has low competence and low confidence (D2) then the mentor adapts his/her response to provide more task direction and emotional support (A2) to the protégé.
  • If the protégé has high competence and low confidence (D3), then the mentor provides less task direction and more emotional support (A3).
  • If the protégé has high competence and high confidence (D4) then the mentor provides low task support and low emotional support (A4).

Ralph and Walker noted that the hardest part of this model for both the mentor and the protégé was determining the protégé’s development level. This seems to be the same in many coaching situations.

Can you guess which quadrant Sally was in and which quadrant Bill was in and why their mentoring relationship was not working?  When it comes to mentoring, one size does not fit all. What do you think? Will you try applying this Adaptive Mentorship© model in your next mentorship relationship?

Joanne Royce helps create happy, healthy and productive workplaces that result in engaged people and successful businesses. She provides HR and training support to organizations who believe in the power of people.

Source:  Enhancing Mentors’ Effectivene ss: The Promise of the Adaptive Mentorship© Model by Edwin G. Ralph and Keith Walker (2010). Read the full paper at:

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