What should you consider when establishing a peer-mentoring relationship?

Mentorship is a common topic in medicine. We, as a profession, spend significant time discussing, attending workshops about, and researching the role of mentorship. Mentorship is key to personal development, career choice, and improved academic productivity.

Yet, it wasn’t until recently that my understanding of mentorship was challenged. I have always viewed mentorship as someone more senior than myself helping me to achieve my goals.  I have always been the mentee in such relationships. I was expecting the opportunity to mentor incredible residents during my chief resident year, but I have been truly surprised by the importance of mentor-mentee relationships with my co-chief residents. For the first time, I am recognizing the invaluable role that my peers play as my mentors. So, this made me wonder … is peer mentorship important in academic medicine?

Peer mentorship

Peer mentorship is two people at similar stages in their career mentoring one another in a reciprocal fashion to advance both careers.  It is a nonhierarchal relationship with equal commitment and accountability. These definitions perfectly sum up the relationship I have with my co-chiefs. We work together to make advancements in our program, but we have also mentored each other through personal and professional projects, emails, disagreements, fellowship applications, and research. A peer mentor is likely more relatable and can challenge you in ways that a traditional hierarchal mentor may not be able to. A peer will have a better understanding of your day-to-day successes or shortcomings and can provide a bird’s eye view on the best way to push you toward your goals.

The field of business has established the importance of a nonhierarchical mentor. A recent article in Forbes magazine defines peer mentorship as a “safe place to share difficulties or even failures … as a way to strengthen relationships among collogues and help build resiliency.” These principles hold equal importance in medicine, especially in academic medicine. So, what should one consider in establishing a peer-mentoring relationship?

1. Trust and understanding

Trust is critical for obvious reasons, but most importantly, this relationship needs to feel safe. Both people need to provide a protected environment to have open and honest dialogue about goals and career plans. You aren’t depending on your peer to give you opportunities or promotions, unlike traditional mentors. Therefore, you may feel safer in sharing your challenges and be more open to pointed feedback. In my short experience, I have found it easier to hear feedback from my peers, since they aren’t responsible for my advancement. Moreover, this relationship can provide a venue to discuss your concerns prior to taking issues to your traditional mentor.

2. Shared goals

A peer mentor does not necessarily need to be from your field. In fact, having a peer mentor outside your own field might provide better perspective. However, peer mentors must understand each other’s goals and visions and be able to understand the specific pressures within different specialties. If your peer mentor doesn’t understand your vision, he or she can’t help you correct course when necessary.

At the beginning of my chief year, our chair of medicine asked us to read Monday Morning Leadership by David Cottrell. One of the main points of this book was the importance of “keeping the main thing the main thing.” This concept seems simple, but with competing demands and time limitations, this can be hard in practice. Your peer mentor can be vital in helping remind you what your “main thing” is and how to build your body of work around your overall vision. In short, your peer mentor should understand your goals and provide accountability in your pursuits.

3. The importance of resiliency

At the end of the day, a peer mentor should be a supportive resource. Someone that knows how to help you change your viewpoint or plans as necessary. When something negative happens, your peer should be someone that can help you view challenges as opportunities. This relationship should be built on encouragement. You need someone to build you up, help you stay focused, and remind you that academic medicine is a marathon, not a sprint.

My understanding of mentorship has been expanded by my peer-mentoring experience this year. I appreciate that traditional mentorship models are important to career success, but I have come to welcome mentorship from my peers. I wonder if having an effective peer mentor is not only helpful, but is necessary to be successful in academic medicine?  Based on my experience this year, I think that it is.  Should we, as a profession, be discussing, facilitating, and researching the importance of peer mentorship and its role in retention and promotion of aspiring trainees and junior faculty?

Cassandra Fritz is an internal medicine chief resident who blogs at Insights on Residency Training, a part of NEJM Journal Watch.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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