I bought a plant. And while this news may not seem out of the ordinary, I must make a public confession that I. Kill. Plants. From the perfectly healthy Ficus tree that I poisoned with the stale coffee I was too lazy to dump down the sink to the sad little succulent whose instructions to ‘water occasionally’ became an excuse to water ‘never’ – I simply should not be trusted with potted living beings. All of that being said, I am going to give it another try because I do believe that my new plant and I can have a successful caretaking relationship.
Wish me, or better yet wish my plant, luck.
The ‘growth-perspective relationship’ we have with plants is not substantially different from the growth perspective relationship we have with our mentoring partners. Mentoring is based on personal relationships that support the growth of an individual being mentored in myriad ways. Effective mentoring includes skills development and psychosocial or socioemotional support designed to lead to career advancement and success.
Mentors in many domains have increasingly recognized the importance of cultivating a ‘growth mindset,’ or the belief that the talents and abilities of individuals can be developed or cultivated. Largely attributed to psychologist Carol Dweck, the growth mindset paradigm stands in contrast to the ‘fixed mindset’ perspective, which is based on a belief in the innate abilities of individuals.
However, despite the clear positive outcomes associated with mentoring, it frequently focuses on building up deficits in individual mentees, rather than promoting the growth of inexperienced, yet otherwise capable, individuals. In particular, primarily white or majority institutions commonly adopt individual-deficit mentoring models in attempting to ‘support’ individuals in adapting to professional environments, particularly in regards to minority or underrepresented lawyers. Broadly implemented, a deficits-focused approach centers on a fixed mindset perspective, or one that presumes innate, fixed potential.
Which brings me back to my new plant. When most people interact with plants, they do so with a growth mindset. When a plant is not faring well in its environment, its caretaker asks a multitude of questions about environmental factors (light, water, temperature, nutrients, etc.) that may be suboptimal to support the health and success of the individual plant. This response is generally distinct from our response to other humans, which frequently highlights presumed weaknesses and deficits in the individual rather than suboptimal environmental factors.
Although many mentors may embody a ‘growth mindset’ when entering a mentoring relationship, when the relationship goes wrong or the mentee fails to thrive, those same mentors assume that these failures are due solely to the innate deficiencies of the mentee. The unilateral focus on individual deficits that underlies ‘fixed mindset’ perspectives results in limited impacts and meager outcomes in mentoring relationships. Further, ‘fixed mindset’ interventions fail to fully promote innovation in mentoring relationships.
Our human responses to plants in our environment provide an undeniable proxy for how we can apply a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset to mentoring relationships. Beronda Montgomery’s article, “From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization” lays out several lessons in mentoring that we can learn from our relationship with plants:
Plant Lesson 1
First, we extensively probe our environment when the plants in it are not faring well.
Mentoring Implication 1
Instead of beginning with questions about personal deficits, this lesson from plants teaches that our mentoring engagements with mentees should begin with asking systematic questions about the impacts of the environment on an individual’s potential for growth and success. We should not by default presume infallibility of the system. A well-informed understanding of the system’s impact on the individual will greatly enrich and elevate our mentoring practices.
Plant Lesson 2
We recognize that successful plant growth sometimes requires new resources and at other times the relocation of existing resources.
Mentoring Implication 2
When we have identified specific environmental deficits or needs, we assess whether new resources are needed or whether resources already present somewhere in the ecosystem need to be relocated and/or connected to the individual to support its growth and development. In these instances, one of the mentor’s primary and significant roles is to serve as an environmental steward who connects individuals to the right resources.
In other cases, available resources of the right “type” might prove insufficient to support the maximal growth of an individual in a particular context. Thus, an available but insufficient resource does not yield the desired growth. Here, a growth-minded mentor would recognize when available resources are insufficient and facilitate connection to suitable alternatives or assist in altering an existing resource.
The necessary resources are not always already present in any given environment. A situation like this presents an opportunity for a mentor or leader to help identify and acquire new resources. The various roles of mentors in identifying and accessing resources positions them as “opportunity brokers” who can help individuals connect to resources, spanning from practical to additional mentoring, to promote their success.
Plant Lesson 3
We recognize that caretakers and their specific preparation, expertise, and efficacy in using these skills, critically matter to plant persistence and optimized survival.
Mentoring Implication 3
Given two plants with equal potential for growth, the one best connected to available and sufficient resources will grow better and exhibit greater productivity than the plant with equal potential but limited or insufficient access to the necessary resources. The ability of a caretaker to recognize the plants’ current and evolving needs and to both identify and make connections to required resources is critical in supporting growth and potential. Likewise, mentors and leaders greatly matter in supporting the success of individual mentees. Given two individuals of equal aptitude, the one connected to the right mentoring resources or imbedded in the right mentoring network is much more likely to succeed. The potential for positive mentoring outcomes and individual success depends, in large part, on the mentors in established mentoring networks recognizing how their own experience, expertise, and access to resources can serve their mentees’ needs and advance their goals.
Plant Lesson 4
We seek external expertise when our own caretaking efforts prove ineffective or when we lack knowledge about the underlying causes of the impairments or limitations in plant growth.
Mentoring Implication 4
When plants are not growing well, we will often seek the assistance of someone we know to be ‘good’ at growing plants for advice or assistance. That is, we actively seek ‘mentoring’ or ‘coaching’ to serve as better caretakers, including seeking advice on identifying resources to which the plant may need access or specific advice on means for us to provide better care. When mentoring relationships are not progressing well, mentors and leaders can likewise seek external advice from others with experience, or mentors can seek training to improve their mentoring.
Plant Lesson 5
We attribute a failure to support plant growth to our own caretaking and stewardship inadequacies or inabilities and seek opportunities to improve our care regimen.
Mentoring Implication 5
In the unfortunate event that a mentoring relationship is not progressing towards successful guidance of a mentee, the care humans offer plants teaches us to consider that the mentor may not be meeting the needs of the individual rather than an individual mentee having intractable deficits. Certainly, individual plant caretakers frequently admit to “not having a green thumb.” This sort of admission happens much less frequently in the mentoring realm. In cases where a particular mentor is not serving well for the mentee, and perhaps the mentor has already sought external advice in improving the mentoring exchange, it should not be perceived as a failure to admit that the situation is not likely to end well and to actively, and in a timely fashion, facilitate transfer of the individual to a more suitable caretaker. To do otherwise (i.e., engage with a mentee for whom one’s specific mentoring skills are not well matched), could lead to harm or complete failure to thrive. In all cases, the focus should be on supporting growth; thus, doing no harm, independent of intentions.
There is a wealth of knowledge and mentoring inspiration to be derived from observing, contemplating, and enacting lessons from the care that humans offer to plants. Our growth-perspective driven engagement with plants can help transform the experiences of mentees who are being mentored towards attainment of personal and professional goals. Where effectively enacted, pivoting from a deficit-based approach to mentoring, especially of individuals from groups underrepresented in the legal profession, to a growth-based mentoring approach has great potential for significantly increasing the retention of individuals we recruit into the profession.
To be effective, these approaches require centering mentees and their individual potential for growth in mentoring exchanges and outcomes. We must also understand that facilitating best outcomes requires extensive consideration of ecosystem contexts and the potential roles mentors and leaders have in promoting attentiveness to colleagues and cultivating cultures based on the expectation of genuine collegiality, support, and care. We have to learn to “read” and observe the growth cues of colleagues in our environments as evidence of their health, or lack thereof, in context. We, then, must use these cues—much as we do with plants—to guide our care of colleagues to support their success and thriving.