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“Mentoring Up”: Learning to Manage Your Mentoring Relationships

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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“Mentoring up” is a concept that empowers mentees to be active participants in their mentoring relationships by shifting the emphasis from the mentors’ responsibilities in the mentor-mentee relationship to equal emphasis on the mentees’ contributions.


The posting below looks at seven core principles that provide a foundation to understanding the various aspects of an effective mentoring relationship that can mutually benefit the mentee and mentor. It is from Chapter 7 – “Mentoring Up”: Learning to Manage Your Mentoring Relationships, by Steven Paul Lee, Richard McGee, Christine Pfund, and Janet Branchaw, in the book, The Mentoring Continuum – From Graduate School through Tenure, edited by Glenn Wright. Copyright © 2015 The Graduate School Press of Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York 13244. [] All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Graduate Students and Postdocs

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“Mentoring Up”: Learning to Manage Your Mentoring Relationships


“Mentoring Up”

“Mentoring up” is a concept that empowers mentees to be active participants in their mentoring relationships by shifting the emphasis from the mentors’ responsibilities in the mentor-mentee relationship to equal emphasis on the mentees’ contributions.  “Mentoring up” is adapted from the concept of “managing up,” introduced by Gabarro and Kotter’s classic paper in the Harvard Business Review (1980). Gabarro and Kotter conducted field research on how business managers worked productively and discovered that effective managers not only managed their employees, but also managed their peers laterally and their supervisors upwardly.  Their investigations led to the groundbreaking publication “Managing Your Boss,” which provided case studies and strategic advice to managers on how to consciously work with their bosses for the benefit of their working relationship and the company. Despite criticism that they were promoting false flattery or political manipulation, Gabarro and Kotter’s original ideas have persisted.  The Harvard Business Review reprinted their paper twice (in 1993 and 2005) and their concept of managing up appears in multiple books and countless blogs directed at young managers.

Though Gabarro and Kotter’s original audience consisted of managers in the corporate world, many of the principles and strategies they proposed can be applied in academic mentoring relationships. Their advice is based upon the understanding that the relationship with one’s mentor involves mutual dependence between fallible persons. Thus, they stress the importance of assessing the mentor’s and mentee’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences in working and communication.  Most importantly, they stress the powerful role that mentees play when they proactively engage in the relationships: “Some superiors spell out their expectations very explicitly. But most do not. Ultimately, the burden falls on the subordinate to discover what the boss’s expectations are” (Gabarro and Kotter 1980, 99). This means mentees must actively seek to understand their mentor’s priorities and pressures, not passively assume that the mentor will be aware of and able to meet a mentee’s needs. This does not mean the responsibility for an effective relationship lies solely with the mentee; rather, it points to the power mentees have to shape the relationship to meet their needs.

Adapting Gabarro and Kotter’s concept, we define mentoring up as the mentee’s proactive engagement in the mentor-mentee relationship, so that both parties mutually benefit from the relationship and move forward towards an agreed-upon purpose or vision. Mentoring up is a process in which the mentee continually learns about the relationship and develops skills to engage in it as the relationship evolves. Ultimately, learning the skills needed to proactively manage an evolving mentoring relationship will contribute significantly to the mentee’s ability to effectively navigate and manage a career.

Core Principles in Mentoring Relationships

Gabarro and Kotter provided a valuable approach to working effectively with one’s boss; we believe a similar approach can be applied to mentoring relationships in higher education.  Here we integrate their approach with core principles that have emerged from two evidence-based mentor and mentee training programs, Entering Mentoring (Handelsman et al. 2005) and Entering Research (Branchaw, Pfund, and Rediske 2010), which have been shown to improve mentored research experiences and mentoring relationships. We place them into the “mentoring up” framework and show that the core principles upon which they are based align well with Gabarro and Kotter’s original ideas and provide a framework for “mentoring up.”

Entering Mentoring uses a process-based approach to research mentor training in which mentors working with mentees discuss and attempt to solve mentoring challenges across a range of core themes. Through these discussions, participants gain knowledge and skills needed to improve their mentoring practice. The Entering Mentoring curriculum was developed based on the experience of research mentors in the biological sciences; it draws on core principles in mentoring from a range of disciplines, including business. A combination of qualitative and quantitative data indicate that compared to untrained mentors, the mentors who participated in the Entering Mentoring training assess their mentees’ skills and communicate with them more effectively.  Moreover, undergraduate researchers indicated that they had a better experience with the trained, as compared to untrained, mentors (Pfund et al. 2006). One version of the Entering Mentoring-based curricula, targeting the faculty mentors of clinical and translational researchers, was tested in a randomized controlled trial conducted at 16 institutions with 283 mentor-mentee pairs. Mentors assigned to the training showed significantly higher skills gains compared with the control. This held true across career stage, institution, and gender. Mentors assigned to the training self-reported improvements in their mentoring behaviors, which were corroborated by their mentees (Pfund et al. 2014; Pfund et al 2013).

Entering Research is a parallel curriculum for research mentees that brings undergraduate researchers together to discuss the challenges they face as novice researchers in learning to do research and in navigating their mentoring relationships. Like Entering Mentoring, it is a process-based curriculum in which the specific content of each session emerges from the mentees’ experiences. The framework used to guide discussions in Entering Research was developed from the experience of undergraduate research program directors and the literature on undergraduate research experiences. Qualitative and quantitative data collected from undergraduate student mentees (N = 64) who participated in the Entering Research training showed significantly higher self-reported gains in research skills, knowledge, and confidence when compared to a control group of students (N = 144) who also participated in undergraduate research experiences but not the Entering Research training. Of particular relevance were the Entering Research students’ gains in “understanding the career paths of science faculty” and “what graduate school is like,” which were significantly greater than those of the control students. In addition, 41% of Entering Research students reported that the training helped them learn how to effectively communicate and interact with their research mentors (Balster et al. 2010).

The principles described in Entering Mentoring and Entering Research form the foundation for effective mentoring relationships, and address various aspects of the relationship.  Here we use these principles as a framework for applying the concept of “mentoring up” to mentors and mentees working in academic research settings. Below we present core principles that underlie these two evidence-based curricula. Each principle is accompanied by a short description adapted from the Entering Mentoring and Entering Research materials.

1.     Maintaining Effective Communication. Good communication is a key element of any relationship and a mentoring relationship is no exception.  It is critical that mentors and mentees seek to understand their own and the other’s communication styles, and take time to practice communication skills.

2.     Aligning Expectations. Another key element of effective mentor-mentee relationships is a shared understanding of what each person expects from the relationship. Problems and disappointment often arise from misunderstandings about expectations. Importantly, expectations change over time, so reflection, clear communication, and realignment of expectations are needed on a regular basis.

3.     Assessing Understanding.  Determining what you understand as well as if someone truly understands you is not easy, yet is critical to a productive mentor-mentee relationship. Developing strategies to self-assess and assess others’ understanding is an important part of being an effective mentor and mentee.

4.     Addressing Equity and Inclusion. Diversity along a range of dimensions offers both challenges and opportunities to any relationship. Learning to identify, reflect upon, learn from, and engage with diverse perspectives is critical to forming and maintaining an effective mentoring relationship.

5.     Fostering Independence. An important goal in any mentoring relationship is helping the mentee become independent; yet defining what an independent mentee knows and can do is not often articulated by either the mentor or the mentee. Identifying milestones towards independence and setting goals are key strategies to fostering independence in a mentoring relationship.

6.     Promoting Professional Development. The ultimate goal of most mentoring situations is to enable the mentee to identify and achieve some academic and professional outcomes after the training period. It is the responsibility of both the mentor and mentee to identify and articulate these goals and to strive towards them together.

7.     Ethics. Mentors and mentees must engage in and model ethical behavior, while openly discussing issues dealing with gray areas.  Moreover, it can be important to acknowledge when a mentoring relationship includes an unequal power dynamic and any additional ethical considerations it raises.

The seven core principles above provide a foundation to understanding the various aspects of an effective mentoring relationship that can mutually benefit the mentee and mentor. This chapter focuses specifically on the skills mentees need to develop to be effective, proactive, and successful partners in their mentoring relationships.  However, we recognize that both the mentor and the mentee must gain mentoring knowledge and skills and intentionally engage in effective mentoring practices.


Works Cited

Balster, N. J., C. Pfund, R. Rediske, and J. L. Branchaw. 2010. “Entering Research: A Course That Creates Community and Structure for Beginning Undergraduate Researchers in the STEM Disciplines.” CBE Life Sciences Education 9 (2): 108-19.

Branchaw, Janet, Christine Pfund, and Raelyn Rediske. 2010. Entering Research: A Facilitator’s Manual. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Gabarro, John, and John P. Kotter. 1980. “Managing Your Boss.” Harvard Business Review 58 (1): 92-100.

Handelsman, Jo, Christine Pfund, Sarah Lauffer, and Christine Pribbenow. 2005. Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to Train a New Generation of Scientists. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Pfund, C., S. House, K. Spencer, P. Asquith, P. Carney, K. Masters, R. McGee, J. Shanedling, S. Vecchiarelli, and M. Fleming. 2013. “A Research Mentor Training Curriculum for Clinical and Translational Researchers.” Clinical and Translational Science 6 (1): 26-33. doi: 10.1111/cts.12009.

Pfund, C., S. House, P. Asquith, M. Fleming, K. Burh, E. Burnham, J. Eichenberger Gilmore, et al. 2014. “Training Mentors of Clinical and Translational Research Scholars: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Academic Medicine 89 (5): 774-82. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000218.