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Mentors and Tormentors: A survey
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 03/29/2010

Mentor Many of us have observed division that originated from ineffective or malicious mentors. It is a topic about which I have been curious for some time. I believe that it a large and overlooked source of staff division in our vocation.

A few years ago, I presented “We don’t have to like each other. We just have to work together.” in Nashville at IACTP’s 21st Annual Trainers’ Conference. That long-titled program is essentially about recognizing and repairing staff division. As part of the program, I asked each person to voluntarily complete a survey about mentor and anti-mentors. They were asked six questions. The results follow.

Mentors are a very important component in the education of any corrections professional. These are the coaches who teach us the similarities and differences between the official ideal and the institutional real. An effective mentor serves as a clear map to the often confusing paths in corrections operations.

Yet, we tend to overlook the tormentor, or the mentor with less-than-pure motives. These Anti-mentors run the gamut. They can be manipulative, ham-handed, ineffective, and even malicious. Despite those differences, they all create an environment which cripples the mentee.

Who are our mentors and anti-mentors? From where in the corrections field do they come? Do Anti-mentors exist and do they operate with ulterior motives? Here is what some of our colleagues who completed the Mentors and Tormentors survey had to say on the subject.
  1. Did you have a corrections mentor or mentors in your career?
    It was unanimous. 100% said yes

  2. From which group did your mentor originate?
    • 38% Administration
    • 29% Custody
    • 24% Programs
    • 9% Other – Outside of criminal justice

    One participant who answered “Programs” said, “My mentor was a senior staff member and as a new training officer needed someone to answer basic security issues. She was open and honest and kept me out of trouble that first year.”

    One participant who answered “Other” said, “My mother has been mentoring me through assisting me through my developmental stage and at present.”

    14% answered that a representative of all of these groups has served as their mentors at one time or another.

  3. Have you ever served as a mentor to a corrections colleague?
    • Yes – 85%
    • No – 15%

  4. Have you ever encountered an Anti-mentor with an ulterior motive?
    • Yes – 87%

    • Here are some of the comments that accompanied the affirmative answer:
      • Yes, to increase their power base;
      • Bully-like with superior attitude – they think that you should already know it;
      • Person volunteered for a mentor in order to obtain a job promotion;
      • Mentors, by definition, cannot have personal ulterior motives. The only motive they should have is to develop individuals and to be positive;
      • A particular Anti-mentor’s intent was to make the administration look bad;
      • A person who looks like a ‘giver’ may actually be just one who has some ability and self-preservation.

    • No – 13%

  5. Have you ever witnessed a mentor give debilitating advice?
    • Yes – 92%

    • Some comments:
      • A division manager gave bad advice because it did not fit his mission, vision, values;
      • Yes, they believed that they were mentors but in reality were “know it alls” who were clueless;
      • The intent of the anti-mentor was to divide staff and he volunteered to conduct an orientation with new employees.

    • No – 8%

  6. What strategies would you employ to counter anti-mentors?

    • Recognizing staff discord is easy. Repairing it is the hard part. Nevertheless, participants offered many useful solutions to mitigate the ill effects of Anti-mentors.
      • Monitor closer;
      • Separate anti-mentors from staff with shift or location assignment;
      • Replace with positive-minded mentors;
      • Pull the person over and give right information or advice;
      • Be flexible, keep an open mind, avoid letting your personal perspectives to misrepresent opinion;
      • Buck up and ask someone else;
      • Think for yourself;
      • Select volunteers who are willing to mentor other staff;
      • Talk over ‘bad advice’ with others then decide what to ignore;
      • Be alert – don’t let the mentor think for you;
      • Lead by example with a positive attitude and good work ethics. Others will at least observe and possibly follow;
      • Keep anti-mentor at a professional arm’s length distance
      • Alert victim if appropriate and receptive;
      • Be positive but realistic;
      • See the big picture and express it objectively;
      • Allow mentees to make mistakes and ask questions;
      • Point out that their advice goes against policy or common sense – call them on their advice;

Surveys are certainly a manner in which to gauge an audience. But they can also show the many complexities in what appears to be a simple issue. Clearly, mentoring is not just a collection of altruistic staff that is willing to improve corrections through their experience and tutoring. There is an apparently large portion of mentors that are self-serving and dangerous to operations.

All is not lost, however. According to those who answered the survey, there are many different strategies to combat the problems posed by anti-mentors. Thanks to all who participated for helping to expand the base of knowledge in corrections. As corrections professionals, we should be aware of these and employ the methods as necessary. Staff unity is too important to ignore Anti-mentors.

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