Blue Line

Mentoring the middle is critical.

One day, when I have some free time, I am going to sneak around the country with a bucket of nails – or perhaps some two sided carpet tape – and try to pin down all the police management people I know. Literally. Seems to me that by the time I learn to spell a person's name, they have either moved on or are gone altogether.

February 7, 2012  By Dorothy Cotton

One day, when I have some free time, I am going to sneak around the country with a bucket of nails – or perhaps some two sided carpet tape – and try to pin down all the police management people I know. Literally.

Seems to me that by the time I learn to spell a person’s name, they have either moved on or are gone altogether. I’m not the only one to notice this. There are all kinds of scary statistics about how 105 per cent of senior police managers will retire in the next five minutes, the average constable has a week and a half experience and officers are being promoted before they learn to tie their shoes.

Perhaps I exaggerate a titch but I was just trying to contact a police manager person I had been working with on a project, only to find that he had suddenly retired and his replacement is – well – rather junior. There is a lot of discussion about succession planning going on in the police world. That’s one reason that a recentarticle in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology (1) jumped out at me.

This article’s first author is affiliated with the large police service in the Centre of the Universe and the co-authors are well known researchers in police psychology – so I am inclined to pay some attention to their observations (see previous footnote).


The article is entitled “The challenges of moving into middle management; responses from police officers,” so they are specifically talking about police middle managers – generally sergeant and staff sergeant level. They spoke to several hundred officers at all levels in an attempt to determine what makes for a good middle manager, what their role is and where they go amok. This is a very readable paper, so rather than try to regurgitate it here, I am simply going to say that it is worth finding if you aspire to be a middle manager or help select middle managers.

However I do want to comment on one thing that really struck a chord with me – the need for mentoring middle managers. In this study, which included folks from 22 different police agencies across the country, only about one in five had any kind of mentoring for new managers.

There are many ways to get a new manager up to speed but I have always been a big fan of mentorin.
Maybe that’s because back in the formative years of my career, I was fortunate enough to have a couple of mentors who really made a difference in my professional life. Now that I am a Golden Oldie, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from mentoring new psychologists – and even not so one ones who take on new responsibilities. My own experience – for what it is worth – says that mentoring is critically important in career development.

However, as a psychologist, I am not supposed to let my own opinions override scientific knowledge so before becoming too big an advocate, I thought I’d see what the research says. Fortunately, some researchers at the University of South Florida had a look at this issue and saved me from reading a zillion papers on the topic. (2)

First, it might be helpful to define what we mean when we talk about mentoring. (3) Typically, the term refers to some kind ofdevelopmental relationship in which an older and wiser person imparts knowledge, skills and information to a younger or newer person , with the goal of fostering their career growth. It is not the same as supervision or on-the-job friendship but has elements of both, as well as unique elements.

The author’s first observation was that typically, informal mentoring is more effective than formal programs. Hmmm. This presents a bit of a dilemma for people who want to establish formal programs (because you really can’t exactly “establish” an informal program. If you did, it would be a formal program). Leaving that little detail aside, they found:

• The matching process is key: both the mentor and person being mentored (for the sake of ease, we will use these authors’ term “protégé” for these folks) need to have input into the “match.”

• It actually does not seem to make too much different if the protégé’s participation is voluntary. It seems to work equally well when their participation is compulsory.

• Training helps: people don’t necessarily just “know” how to be a mentor or to be mentored. Training especially helps everyone know what the goals of the relationship are. If you know the goals, it is easier to meet them.

• The mentors need to be committed: It made a big difference to how protégés saw things if they felt their mentor was really committed to the process and not just going through the motions.

So basically, the match needs to be good and people need to know what they are doing. Sounds kind of obvious actually but it can be tricky. You probably don’t want mentors and protégés to be too much alike, or to be too different. On what characteristics should mentors and protégés be similar and when should they not be similar?

My guess is that this may vary depending on the people involved. Some people need more skills training; others might need more social support. In any case, a fundamental point from the “Challenges” article remains. Middle management is critical. Let’s make sure people have the skills they need to succeed.


(1) Hogan, James, Bennell, Craig & Taylor, Alyssa (2011). The challenges of moving into middle management; responses from police officers. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 26:100-111.

(2) Allen, Tammy D., Eby, Lillian T., & Lentz, Elizabeth (2006). The relationship between formal mentoring program characteristics and perceived program effectiveness. Personnel Psychology, 59:125-153.

(3) For the purists in the crowd, I will add that Wikipedia provides the following information about where the term Mentor came from:

In Greek mythology, Mentor was the son of Alcimus or Anchialus. In his old age Mentor was a friend of Odysseus who placed Mentor and Odysseus’ foster-brother Eumaeus in charge of his son Telemachus, and of Odysseus’ palace, when Odysseus left for the Trojan War.

When Athena visited Telemachus she took the disguise of Mentor to hide herself from the suitors of Telemachus’ mother Penelope. As Mentor, the goddess encouraged Telemachus to stand up against the suitors and go abroad to find out what happened to his father. When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, Athena appeared briefly in the form of Mentor again at Odysseus’ palace.

Because of Mentor’s relationship with Telemachus, and the disguised Athena’s encouragement and practical plans for dealing with personal dilemmas, the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.

Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line Magazine’s psychology columnist, she can be reached at

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