Ten Ways to Serve as a Great Physician Mentor

March 14, 2015

Advice for physicians currently serving as mentors to other physicians.

In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of forming successful physician mentor-mentee relationships.

Here are 10 things physician mentors can do to help foster healthy, long-term relationships with their mentees. Please add your tips for physician mentors in the comments section below.

1. Embrace generativity. Psychosocial psychologist Erik Erikson talks about the idea of "generativity," or guiding the next generation.  To be a great physician mentor means passing along your knowledge and skills to your mentee so that he can benefit his and future generations.  Mentorship serves as a vehicle for shaping the future of medicine, not for self-gratification. 

2. Show you care. This is a prerequisite to the mentor-mentee relationship.  If you don’t care for your protégé, the mentor-mentee relationship cannot truly exist.

3. Avoid rivalry. Competition is a fundamental human condition and can drive us to do great things, however, it can also lead to egotism.  Egotism is damaging to the mentor-mentee relationship, as well as medicine at large.  Realize this and be mindful of situations where ego may be interfering with proper judgment or treatment of your mentee. 

4. Avoid resentment. Your protégé may go on to do great things and this should not be viewed as "stealing your thunder."  In fact, you should expect that your mentee will surpass you.  As parents view the accomplishments of their children as affirmation of proper guidance, so should you see your mentee’s success.  Remaining mindful of this potential pitfall will ensure your mentee does not inadvertently become a threat to your ego.

5. Avoid initiating quick friendships. There are two sides to the mentor-mentee relationship, a personal side and a professional one.  Your professional relationship comes first and foremost. Through mutual respect and admiration, the professional relationship slowly evolves into a friendship.  Mutual respect and admiration stems from your mentee seeing his future self in you as the mentor, and you seeing a reflection of yourself in the mentee.

6. Allow mistakes. Know that your mentee will make mistakes and be sure to allow opportunity for them.  Mistakes and failures are the building blocks of accomplishment and success.  They should be viewed as "teachable moments" allowing you to carefully point out to the mentee how to avoid mistakes in the future.  Exercise patience when dealing with your mentee in these situations.

7. Be honest about your own mistakes and failures. Your mentee is not the only one who will make mistakes, you will too.  When you make a mistake, be sure to acknowledge the mistake and pass on what you learned to your mentee.

8. Listen to your mentee. Set time aside to sit down and talk to your mentee.  During this time, provide feedback and encourage your mentee to give you feedback about yourself.  Mentorship is a two-way street, both participants should learn from this experience.  

9. Encourage autonomy. Give your mentee breathing room.  Whether it is in dealing with a patient, performing a surgery or presenting a case, in order for your mentee to grow he needs to be able to take on more of the workload.  You have to be OK with that and be willing to let him "run the show."  This goes hand-in-hand with allowing for mistakes.

10. Exercise humility. This aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship is the most pervasive, echoing through all aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship.  Harvey Max Chochinov, MD PhD, said, "Physicians who lack humility talk at their patients; physicians who are sufficiently humble talk with their patients."  In this same why, humble mentors talk with their mentees, not at them.