The benefits of having a mentor are well known and well documented, ranging from increased self-confidence to more promotions and higher pay. This is especially true when mentorship turns into sponsorship. But what about the benefits of an anti-mentor?
A strong mentor provides guidance and advice to a less experienced and usually younger person, often modeling positive behaviors and serving as an aspirational career outcome. The anti-mentor, on the other hand, is a person whose life choices and behaviors serve as a model for who you don’t want to become. Anti-mentors can shape your development as much as a mentor.
When I reflect on my own leadership style, the bad bosses I’ve been around have influenced me more than the good ones. This is likely due to the fact it’s easier to omit behaviors you don’t want than to mimic positive ones. Scientists call this learning from negative morality.
Early in my career, I was frequently subjugated to the “bring me a rock” phenomenon in which my manager could not (or would not) communicate his goals clearly and succinctly. Years later, I can still feel the frustration of doing extra useless work for this anti-mentor. As a result, I’m passionate about communicating strategy/objectives and obsess about being simple and clear.
I also had managers who wanted to know every detail of what I was working on, requiring weekly status reports with lots of specifics. I eventually discovered these managers didn’t actually read the reports but judged my performance solely on how long the status reports were. As a result of those anti-mentors, I decided to manage by exception. Rather than current status, I ask employees to talk about performance trends. There’s usually more to learn from outliers than everyday results.
Bad bosses who are anti-mentors can have unintended consequences. I’ve met many managers who struggle having difficult conversations with employees. These managers always want to be liked, even when a constructive discussion could increase performance. The underlying reason is often a former boss who was an asshole; they are overcompensating because they don’t want to emulate that former boss.
From that perspective, you could potentially choose an anti-mentor who has the opposite qualities of those you want to develop. However, this is a risky strategy; odds are you will end up picking up some unexpected bad habits.
Like a mentor, the influence of an anti-mentor is pervasive and long-lasting. Anti-mentors don’t just shape your own development, they likely impact how you influence others.