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"Mentoring: Dominate, Accommodate, or Enable"
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 11/01/2010

Mentor Giving someone a meal will keep hunger away for a day. But to teach a person to fish can keep hunger away forever. The role of a true mentor is to plant the seeds of capability and knowledge in fertile ground.

When the experienced become mentors, corrections has a potentially potent tool for staff training. Granted, policy and procedure are written cues on how any new person should perform. But experience-laden advice about how most prisoners are likely to react to any given situation is also very valuable.

The voice of experience is one which transmits institutional culture. As we relate information gained through hard-fought battles to newer colleagues, we send wisdom. This helps new employees to survive their first days and to become mentors in turn.

The true coach will neither spoon-feed the student nor bludgeon the pupil with the dictatorship of experience. Some students will need occasional doses of either extremes, but the effective mentor will always return toward moderation. Optimally, the mentee continues the cycle to become a mentor. In balance, a coach is someone who helps newer staff assimilate into a work environment.

But are all mentors inherently wise? And if they are wise, are they driven by the notion of training colleagues with the larger perspective in mind? Not all mentors have pure motive or strong confidence.

So many ideas are easily explained by using a continuum. Essentially, there are three types of anything. There are two opposing extremes and various degrees of the non-extreme. All but the extremes fall in the middle of the continuum. By understanding the extremes, the middle area with all of its subtle differences is better explained.

And the mentor continuum explains three different teaching modes. They are accommodation, domination, and enabling. By exploring the accommodation and domination modes, the judicious balance struck by the enabler is better illustrated.

Accommodate                                         Enable                                         Dominate
(The mentor continuum)

Accommodator – off to the extreme left of the continuum of the accommodating mentor. In this extreme, the mentor is an appeaser and focuses too much on the student’s comfort. Yet, though the mentor may have good intentions and is consciously obliging and helpful, the trident remains sheltered and stunted. The friendly rapport overshadows the hunt for the larger perspective. The mentor/student relationship becomes mollification and pacification.

Too many times, the mentor cannot take one step back, but remains omnipresent. It is like an overprotective parent that refuses to let the child stumble and fall while learning to walk. For example, a mentor may forestall prisoner contact with the neophyte for fear of shattering the confidence of the protégé. This leads to coddling, arrested development, and overdependence in the learning process.

Novice staff that feign ignorance and are not adverse to others doing their duties can actually manipulate the Accommodating Mentor.

Dominator – the dominator variety of mentor is at the right extreme of the mentor continuum. As the name implies, this is the teacher hat attempts to control all of the actions of the junior staff. This is a dictatorship of experience held over the head of the novice. Often, this mentor is an autocrat who is looking for a lapdog or cheering section. In many ways, the this is a tormentor.

This is a petty tyrant who carefully gives limited information to the pupil. Knowledge is power, and the dominator filters the lessons so the student remains dependant. Whatever the motives, when a meek, unconfident student becomes entangled with a dominant mentor, it results in a power submission relationship.

Enabler – The word enabler sometimes has a negative connotation. In certain contexts, it means someone who will help perpetuate bad habits. However, the enabling mentor is a coach who gives peers of lesser seniority a means of becoming aware of the job more thoroughly and rapidly.

For example, the enabler will not stand by while the student submits an inaccurate count. They will, however, explain the potential mistakes, teach how to rectify, and list the repercussion.

The position on the continuum suggests a balance. The philosophy is moderation and empowerment. This tutor will allow mentee to make small mistakes in order to learn a lesson. The instructor realizes that the core of the lesson is more important than any face-saving, ego-driven action.

There are solutions for mentors gone wrong, or who need a little redirection. This is the mentee self-help list:
  • Seek other opinions in other mentors.
  • Read literature online, at home
  • Do not limit literature search to corrections only
  • Consult staff library to see if there are materials on corrections training
  • Do not abandon mentor and cause shame and awkwardness. Be subtle
  • Do not flaunt new avenues of learning.

The mentee is not the only one who has options here. Other staff may do the following:
  • Teach the teacher. Help the mentor hone the method of learning
  • Offer newbies your skills to augment other mentors
  • Never humiliate mentor nor condescend mentees
  • Empower the mentee by suggesting the self-help list

It would be a horribly boring world if everyone had the same teaching styles and learning needs. Different modes keep corrections vibrant and vigorous. But even so, extremes can cripple well meaning efforts to assimilate new staff. It is true here as in so many things: Balance is key. Mentors need to remember that. The future of corrections is in the hands of mentors.

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