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The Importance of Trust in Mentoring Relationships

Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to the success of a mentoring relationship. However, trust may be the most powerful one. Covey goes so far as to say that trust can allow you to positively and significantly alter the trajectory of every future moment in your life (Covey, 2018). There are different types of trust that apply in mentorship. These can be addressed by considering three primary mentoring-trust questions:

  • Can I trust that you are really invested in me? 

  • Can I trust you to safeguard the information that I share with you?

  • Can I trust that your experience and knowledge will be beneficial to me?
     

Specifically related to mentoring, trust is largely influenced by the mentor's perception of four important dimensions: mentee ability, mentee benevolence, mentee integrity, and risk (Leck & Orser, 2013).

 

In a specific mentoring study done within academia, the interviews showed that of all the relationship dimensions that influence the development of trust in one's mentor, sharing of control and fair behavior appeared to be areas where mentees had the most positive perceptions and experiences. (Erdem & Aytemur, 2008). Trust appears to be of paramount importance to the success of mentoring in general and e‐mentoring in particular (Starwood, 2010). Almost universally, trust is seen as one of the key factors involved in whether mentoring can be successful, and it can be suggested that it is harder to build up trust within a formal mentoring relationship (Evans, 2018).

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Making the Case for the Importance of Trust

Jim Burke, former chairman and CEO of Johnson and Johnson left nothing to doubt when he said, “You can’t have success without trust. The word trust embodies almost everything you can strive for that will help you to succeed. You tell me any human relationship that works without trust, whether it is a marriage or a friendship or a social interaction; in the long run, the same thing is true about business, especially businesses that deal with the public” (Covey, S.M.R. 2018 p 6). To Burke’s point, unless there is trust, success will be highly improbable.

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Establishing and Nurturing Trust

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways to establish and nurture trust in the mentoring relationship. Four primary methods include – clarifying expectations, keeping commitments, showing loyalty, and investing in the relationship. These are explained in detail in the section below.

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Clarifying Expectations
 
Clarifying expectations as a method of establishing and nurturing trust is mentioned first for a reason. If clear expectations are set upfront in a nurturing relationship it sets the foundation of how the relationship will be managed and removes ambiguity.
 
I once heard the late, great business expert Clayton Christensen talk about being approached with a request to mentor a young man. Christensen agreed upon the condition that in any meeting that the two had, that the young man would come prepared with a set of questions. Christensen had set an important expectation in how the mentoring relationship would work in this particular situation.
 
Covey writes that clarifying expectations is a behavior that people rarely pay enough attention to. He calls it the “behavior of prevention because if you focus on this one up front, you will avoid heartaches and headaches later on” (Covey 2018).
 
So how does clarifying expectations lead to increased trust in a mentoring relationship? Clarifying expectations will make it possible to measure the value of the mentoring relationship. Without properly setting those expectations, it will be difficult to determine if each party is contributing effectively.
 
Keeping Commitments
 
Keeping commitments is closely tied to the previous point of setting expectations. If expectations are 
set and understood, then both the mentor and mentee will be able to determine if each is keeping their commitments in the relationship. Additionally, as expectations are set then met, the mentor and mentee develop trust in one another relative to integrity, knowing that each is going to do what they have committed to do.
 
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “You are your word. When you say you will do it, do it. Don’t give your word unless you intend to keep it. A leader whose promise means something is trusted. Trust counts for everything in leadership” (Covey 2018 p 221).
 
Covey calls the behavior of keeping commitments the “Big Kahuna.” He says that it is the quickest way to build trust in any relationship (Covey p 222).
 
Showing Loyalty
 
Loyalty is oftentimes misunderstood and certainly has the ability to be misused in building trust in mentoring relationships. Many think that loyalty means standing by and defending someone in all situations. Such behavior can actually be counterproductive. There are times when a person needs to be challenged, called-out, or reprimanded for their behavior. This isn’t disloyalty. This is being loyal to the long-term success of the relationship.
 
In our context of mentoring and building trust in mentoring relationships, showing loyalty takes on a slightly different meaning. In this context we’re talking about giving credit to the other party, recognizing and highlighting the progress of the mentee, being supportive through challenges, and having helpful intent. Considering loyalty in this light, and practicing these loyalty behaviors, will go a long way in developing trust.
 
Investing in the Relationship
 
Consider now how trust gets built as both the mentor and mentee invest time and resources in the relationship.

While the mentor provides advice and expresses opinion, it is always the mentee that decides, acts and produces outcomes (Rolfe 2020 p 88). However, I don’t believe Rolfe is suggesting that the mentor be a completely hands-off participant in the relationship. Yes, the decisions are left to the mentee, but the mentor should be courageous and persuasive in their counsel. As mentors take a more active role in demonstrating their investment in the relationship, the trust level by the mentee will be increased.

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