OPINION9 November 2020

Silencing the imposter

Opinion UK

Nick Bonney cautions against imposter syndrome in the latest in a series from MRS mentors.

Often when we see titles such as ‘mentor’ being bandied around it’s easy to feel that we can’t be up to the task. The word seems to conjure up images from the movies of wise gurus helping our intrepid hero on their quest and helping them overcome their inner demons to triumph against all odds.

Imposter syndrome quickly kicks in and we convince ourselves we simply cannot be up to the task. Our inner voice says we’d struggle to make a passable Mr Miyagi let alone a lightsabre-wielding Obi Wan Kenobi.

The truth, of course, is very different. The role of an MRS mentor is not to be set on a pedestal as a wizened research guru but rather to help the mentee overcome a specific barrier they have come up against or work through a series of options where an external perspective can help them see the wood for the trees. In my experience, the individual almost always knows the answer themselves – it’s about helping them get there.

I signed up to the mentoring scheme three years ago. From an industry point of view, I felt I had an obligation to ‘give something back’. The research world has been good to me over the years and there are a number of informal mentors who have been hugely generous with their time whenever I was in need of help or advice.

However, my motivations were not purely altruistic. From a personal point of view, I felt I was missing the day-to-day coaching outside of routine line management. Now I find myself running my own business, the coaching experience being an MRS mentor brings has become even more important to me.

If you’re reading this with the imposter syndrome alarm bells ringing loud and clear, I’d urge you to put them to one side and think about how you can become part of the scheme. However, it’s worth entering a relationship like this with your eyes open.

Firstly, make sure there is a clear plan in place at the start of the mentoring relationship. The mentee needs to be clear what they need help with for the relationship to be a success. It’s also useful to ‘contract’ both in terms of practicalities (where and how often you’ll meet, etc) but also on expectations.

Secondly, be happy to call time. The MRS scheme is set out around one-year mentoring relationships, but you may find that it naturally comes to fruition before that. Equally, if there doesn’t appear to be a good chemistry or the objectives aren’t clear from the outset, it’s better to flag this early on rather than both find yourselves feeling obligated to a relationship which doesn’t seem to be working.

Thirdly, it needs to be an active, not passive, relationship. Practically this means it’s key for the mentee to set out what they want to achieve and to agree objectives of each session. However, emotionally, it’s also important to celebrate the little successes along the way so that you both feel you’re making progress.

It may feel like an odd time to be talking about mentoring schemes when our working lives seem to be more and more bereft of human contact. Yet while it’s always nicer to be having one of these sessions over a coffee or a glass of wine, there’s absolutely no reason why a mentoring relationship cannot as successful using the array of digital tools we’ve all become accustomed to.

In some ways, the scheme is more important now than ever before. At an individual level, many of us are feeling more isolated and in need of a listening ear. At an industry level, it is likely that the impact of Covid will be casting a shadow of uncertainty over us for some time to come and there will be researchers of all types potentially thrust into a period of reflection on their career goals and aspirations that they just hadn’t seen coming. Don’t let those inner voices get in the way of the big difference you could be making.

Nick Bonney is founder of Deep Blue Thinking

For more information on mentoring, visit the MRS website.

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