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Gaining Trust in a Mentoring Relationship By: Kim Wheeler


If you take a moment to reflect on the people who have had the most positive impact on your career, you will likely think of people in whom you had a high degree of trust.  When we trust someone, we know that we can communicate openly with them, that we can rely on them to follow through when they commit to do something, and that we can believe and act on their input.  Not coincidentally, these are also the building blocks of an effective mentoring partnership.  

Trust is the foundation of any successful relationship, but especially so in mentoring where mentees must feel safe asking questions and sharing concerns and must have confidence in their mentor’s feedback.  While the mentee will drive many aspects of the mentoring relationship, it is the mentor’s responsibility to proactively build trust.  Mentors must foster a relationship in which trust can grow steadily.  Below are some mentoring behaviors that are key to gaining your mentee’s trust. 

Start strong. 
We’ve all heard it before—first impressions are lasting impressions.  The level of sincerity and credibility you demonstrate during the initiation, or "getting to know you,” phase will set the tone for the duration of your mentoring relationship.  Seemingly simple behaviors, such as being on time, being attentive and interested, and listening more than you talk, communicate to the mentee that you care and are committed.  Conversely, being late or canceling meetings, interrupting or dominating the conversation, or forgetting important details from your previous meetings can signal that you don’t take the process (or the person) seriously and can create doubt about your intentions and level of investment.  

Treat your first few interactions with your mentee as you would a job interview—be on time, be prepared, be focused.  Put your best foot forward from the start and you will take a huge step toward gaining your mentee’s trust.           

Build credibility.
To build trust, you must first establish your credibility.  In his best-selling book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey defines the four cores of credibility as integrity, intent, capability, and results.   Convincing people of your integrity, Covey writes, includes not only being honest, but also congruent—does your behavior match who you say you are and what you say you believe?  Showing trustworthy intent involves acting with (or stating outright) motives that are straightforward and based on mutual benefit.  Sharing your talents, skills, and knowledge demonstrates your capability.  And providing results is simple—do what you said you would do when you said you would do it and invest the effort to do it well.        

When you exhibit the cores of credibility over a sustained period, your mentee will begin to trust you and see you as a person who is willing and able to help them reach their goals.

Be consistent.
Trust is not something you earn once and have forever.  Trust must be built, nurtured, and maintained.  Keeping a person’s trust means consistently demonstrating the characteristics and behaviors (the four cores of credibility) that led them to trust you in the first place.  This doesn’t mean that you can never make a mistake—even mentors are human.  But it does mean that you should follow through whenever possible, and be willing to take responsibility for mistakes when you make them.  (In fact, admitting fault is such a difficult thing for many people that doing so could actually increase your mentee’s trust in you.)     

Consistent, reliable mentoring behavior will become increasingly important as your relationship deepens and your mentee begins to share their questions, concerns, and challenges.  Listen to them without judgment.  Be honest in your feedback.  Keep what they tell you confidential.  Follow up to check on their progress and ask how you can help.  Connect them with additional resources or situational mentors.  These behaviors will demonstrate your commitment, maintain your mentee’s trust and confidence, and help your mentee grow and achieve their goals. 
Extend trust.
Another key tenet that Covey sets forth in The Speed of Trust is that extending trust to someone else is one of the best and fastest ways to establish and grow trust.  "Not only does it build trust,” he writes, "it leverages trust.  It creates reciprocity; when you trust people, other people tend to trust you in return.”

Extend trust to your mentee by sharing information about yourself.  Mentoring means being open and honest about your experiences—including relevant professional missteps or regrets—opinions, and feedback.  When you are willing to share, you encourage your mentee to do the same.  Trust also means believing that the other person will follow through with what they say they will do.  Believe that your mentee is capable of achieving their goals and trust that, with the right resources, guidance, and support, they will do the work they need to do to get where they want to be.