The Mentoring Relationship as a Complex Adaptive System: Finding a Model for Our Experience

Nov. 01, 2011

Source: Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, Vol. 19, No. 4, November 2011, 401–418.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article is the outcome of our mentoring relationship set in an academic context.
This paper intersperses the authors' individual reflections on their mentoring relationship with their joint consideration of how effectively the existing literature captured our experience.

Conceptualizations of Mentoring

The authors began by exploring the mentoring literature looking for a model of the mentoring experience that they could follow.
They identified two dominant existing conceptualizations of mentoring: The traditional model and the reciprocal model

The Traditional Model
The traditional model’s transmission-based perspective of mentoring is built around the mentor imparting knowledge, information, or support and the protégé receiving it.
The relationship is hierarchical in nature and the flow of knowledge is downward from mentor to protégé.

In this framework, mentoring is understood as a relationship between an experienced, likely older and more powerful, mentor and a protégé.
The mentor is older and more experienced while the protégé is younger and less well established within the organization.

Due to the imbalance in experience between mentor and protégé, the mentor was also associated with holding the power within the traditional mentoring relationship.
The nature of the personal power ensures the mentor is able to influence the direction of the relationship, make decisions, and facilitate career progression.

The Reciprocal Model
In contrast, the reciprocal model emphasizes the collaborative nature of the mentoring relationship, represented by the bi-directional arrow.
In the reciprocal model, the mentor is no longer perceived as the person holding the power—instead power is shared as the mentor demonstrates a willingness to concede authority and the protégé to develop it.
The collaborative approach that is the defining feature of the reciprocal model ensures decision-making about time frames, direction of the dyad and topics discussed and so on is also shared.

Furthermore, both parties are stakeholders, hence they both have equity in the relationship.
Finally, where previously career-outcome or psycho-social benefits of the mentoring relationship were thought to be obtained by the protégé, within the reciprocal model both participants in the relationship are understood to gain.

A Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) Approach to Mentoring
As they undertook their own mentoring relationship, the authors tried to determine which model seemed to fit their experience best.
They found that the complex adaptive systems (CAS) would better describe their relationship.

The CAS is based on complexity thinking and systems theory and thus allows for complex, dynamic relationships within a perceived structure.
In the CAS approach, the mentoring relationship is never fixed—it is always responding and adapting to its own inputs as well as the inputs of the wider environment.
Furthermore, this dynamic state of flux is crucial to the learning process.
The goal, then, for mentoring relationships is to operate effectively within a dynamic and emergent context, while balancing the predictable and unpredictable, the stable and the unstable.

Reflections on the Authors' Story

The authors are comfortable that CAS theory helps explain our mentoring experiences to date.
Though there have been a basic pattern and structure to their interactions there have also been elements of chaos and unpredictability.
The authors also have experienced feeling like they are a system.
The impact of the systemic aspects of their experience led the authors to develop a model of our mentoring relationship based on CAS theory.

Thus a CAS model of their relationship shows their system operates within a university system as well as the larger cultural setting.

The authors conclude that the traditional and reciprocal models fail to acknowledge the dynamic relationship between mentor and protégé and the impact of external factors on the dyad.
A CAS model, on the other hand, allows for a complex, dynamic, unpredictable, and nonlinear conceptualization of mentoring. It also is particularly useful because of its inclusion of context.
Hence, the authors feel a holistic lens like CAS offers a better understanding of the mentoring process.

Updated: Sep. 16, 2013