Matching, Trust, and Symbiosis for High Quality Mentoring

By David Hosmer

Mentoring programs can yield enormous professional benefits, such as career acceleration, performance development, employee engagement, and retention. According to one study, mentoring can result in promotions for participants five to six times more than non-program participants (Schnieders, 2018). Conversely, poor mentoring experiences can backfire. In another study, researchers found that negative mentoring experiences for mentees can be predictors of stress, depression, and psychological withdrawal. On the other hand, mentors may experience burnout (Hu et al., 2021). Given so much is at stake, career practitioners should expend their effort in mentoring programs that foster high quality relationships. This is where matching, trust, and symbiosis play a role. Like an enduring marriage, successful mentoring comprises complex, interacting factors beneath the surface. These factors matter whether mentoring results from an informal program or a formal organizational program.

In an informal program, two individuals might meet by serendipity and agree to continue to meet as mentor and mentee, without arrangement by an organization. Formal mentoring emanates from an organization-supported program with structure, such as an application, matching, and timebound process. Formal programs are rooted in business objectives and are sometimes measured.

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When mentoring takes place informally, matching occurs naturally without a formal process. An organization that sanctions a deliberate launch of mentoring partnerships involves more oversight. For example, at MIT there is more access to mentoring across the institute in a planned way. Participation begins with applicants who seek to enter a collaborative learning relationship. An organized approach for matching mentors and mentees is crucial in the pairing process to minimize mismatches. Program objectives and participant goals should serve as a backdrop during matching. “A personalized mentoring relationship—one responsive to the needs, goals, interests, and priorities of both the mentor and the mentee—is likely to be more effective than one that is not personalized” (Lund & Byars-Winston, 2019, p. 105).

Suggestions for Matching:

  • Garner ample information from mentors and mentees including why they want to enter into a mentoring partnership, whether they have been a mentee/mentor before, the mentor’s key strengths, skills, competencies, and what characteristics a mentee prefers in a mentor.
  • Use an information-gathering format, such as an application, that requires applicants to be clear about what each wants from mentoring, going beyond what they want to learn.
  • Don’t accept that mentoring is the appropriate solution in every case. For example, mentoring is not typically extended to employees are in a performance improvement plan (PIP).
  • Don’t assume all volunteers will be effective mentors.
  • Establish a 3–5-person diverse ad hoc team to serve as a matching committee if you have the resource to do so. Using the information submitted by prospective participants, the committee will pair mentors with mentees, reach out to applicants to address any gaps in information, and surface biases.



Trust and honesty should not be assumed in a mentoring relationship. Rather, mentors and mentees must openly discuss and earn each other’s trust. First, both parties should agree that whatever is discussed in mentoring meetings is confidential and will not be shared elsewhere. To learn, mentees need a safe place to think aloud and to be vulnerable with their thoughts and concerns (Marshall, 2013). “It’s a relationship where one can let one’s guard down, a place where one can get honest feedback, and a place, ideally, where one can get psychological and social support in handling stressful situations” (Staff, 2007, para. 12).

Second, the mentor must be aware of their intentions, as the mentee needs to know that their mentor has their best interests in mind (Johnson et al., 2021). Mentees must trust that their mentor shares information, guidance, and feedback in the spirit of caring, support, and growth.

Third, both partners must consistently be honest with each other. In studies on mentoring relationships, mentees identified honesty as an essential characteristic of an effective mentor. “Just being honest and telling someone … you know that this idea is not a good idea, or they need to be doing something else.” (Straus et al., 2013, p. 84). Trust holds hands with integrity. If participants have an agreement, such as completing an assignment or agreeing to make an introduction, they should follow through or openly discuss otherwise.

Finally, both parties should be aware that they will endure challenges during the work of mentoring. The mentee should trust that if they open up or display emotion that the mentor demonstrates empathy as they work through issues together.

Mistakes occur, and trust can be compromised. These offer powerful moments in the relationship as both parties discuss the situation openly. By working through such times, trust can be re-earned, evolving into a stronger mentoring bond.

To Build Trust:

  • Discuss the expectation of trust at the beginning of the relationship and what it means in this context.
  • Follow through on agreements. If one cannot, because of unforeseen circumstances, bring it up first, to take responsibility.
  • Match words with behavior. Communication is 90% non-verbal. If what a person says does not match what they are doing, they send mixed messages.



Mentoring has evolved beyond the traditional idea that a younger person learns from a senior wiser person. One emergent mentoring type is symbiotic, the social definition of which refers to “a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence” (TheFreeDictionary.com, n.d.). This type of mentoring is also referred to as a relational mentoring, that is “one that includes mutual learning and a communal, dyadic, and reciprocal relationship which extends beyond the traditional standpoint” (Abegunde et al., 2022, para. 5). For example, Don Graham, CEO of the Washington Post, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have a symbiotic relationship. In 2005, Mark rejected Don’s $6 million investments propositions for another offer. Despite this, they developed a relationship in which Mark benefited from Don’s years of experience, and Don received online strategies advice from Mark (Toledo, 2018).

Considerations for Symbiotic Mentoring:

  • For informal partnerships, forming a symbiotic partnership starts with both parties agreeing to have a mutually beneficial relationship in which they share mentor and mentee roles. What they learn from each other depends on what each wants to learn from, and offer to, the other.
  • In a formal program, the mentor and the mentee should state what they want to learn in the partnership.
  • In a formal program, mentors should express their openness to mutual learning in a non-traditional arrangement. Both parties should agree to share the roles of mentor and mentee, relative to their needs.

Transformative Benefits for All

Quality mentoring experiences can have transformative benefits for mentees, mentors, and their organizations. While some relationships occur naturally, conscientious matching in a formal program will maximize the potential for meaningful mentoring. Many develop into long-lasting relationships evolving from trust, openness, and rich learning.



Abegunde, M. H., & Park J. J. (2022, Jul 12). Mentoring as a contemplative practice: Guidelines for holistic mentoring in graduate school. Simple Book Publishing, Pressbooks. https://iu.pressbooks.pub/contemplativementoring/chapter/developmental-stages-in-mentoring-relationships/

Hu, Z., Li, J., & Kwan, H. K. (2021). The effects of negative mentoring experiences on mentor creativity: The roles of mentor ego depletion and traditionality. Human Resource Management, 61(1), 39–54. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.22076

Johnson, B. W., Smith, D. G., & Haythornthwaite, J. (2021, Sept 17). Why your mentorship program isn’t working. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/07/why-your-mentorship-program-isnt-working

Lund D., & Byars-Winston, A. (2019, Oct 30). The science of effective mentorship in STEMM. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK552772/

Marshall, J. (2013, Dec 24). A quiet place to think out loud. MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://news.mit.edu/2013/quiet-place-think-out-loud

Schnieders, A. (2018, Jun 22). Why workplace mentoring programs fail. Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/leadership/why-workplace-mentoring-programs-fail/314875

Staff, K. A. W. (2007, May 16). Workplace loyalties change, but the value of mentoring doesn’t. Knowledge at Wharton. https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/workplace-loyalties-change-but-the-value-of-mentoring-doesnt/

Straus, S. E., Johnson, M. O., Marquez, C. & Feldman, M. D. (2013). Characteristics of successful and failed mentoring relationships: a qualitative study across two academic health centers. Academic Medicine, 88(1), 82-89. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0b013e31827647a0

TheFreeDictionary.com. (n.d.). Symbiotic relationships. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Symbiotic+Relationships

Toledo, M. (2018, Oct 15). Four mutual mentorship ideas to enhance your business. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeslacouncil/2018/10/15/four-mutual-mentorship-ideas-to-enhance-your-business/?sh=8745fc8665ef




David Hosmer 2022David Hosmer's experience spans over 25 years in varied industries as a leader and practitioner in talent development, coaching, mentoring, organization development. He is currently an independent consultant specializing in career advising, executive coaching, mentoring, learning and development programs, and organization development. These roles include senior executive HR advisor for a biotech startup; and organization development consultant, executive coach, and author at MIT; and principal consultant for Axiom Learning Solutions. David is an author of numerous articles and book contributions. He has also served as repeat guest speaker on career-related and employee development topics for various organizations. David can be reached at Dhosmer65@gmail.com

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