From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization

Montgomery, Beronda

From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization

Beronda L. Montgomery

Michigan State University

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics

Department of Energy—Plant Research Laboratory

East Lansing, MI 48824

Running title: Growth-Focused Mentoring Environments

Keywords: deficits model, faculty development, fixed mindset, growth mindset, mentoring, student development 

Corresponding author: Beronda L. Montgomery, Michigan State University, DOE—Plant Research Laboratory, 612 Wilson Road, East Lansing, MI 48824, E-mail:, Tel 517-353-7802, Fax 517-353-9168


There is much to learn about mentoring and professional development interventions from translating lessons that emerge from investigating the specific ways in which humans engage with plants that are growing in their environment. Organisms, such as plants, which largely live out their lives in one location, are exquisitely sensitive to changes in their external environment and adapt their growth to environmental cues to increase survival and productivity. Plants maximize their use and acquisition of available resources and limit or ward off danger from harmful factors. Systematic assessment of how plants sense and respond to environmental fluctuations or transitions, as well as the care offered to plants by humans, can yield key lessons and inform mentoring practices that promote sense-driven and mentor-facilitated success of students and colleagues in academic environments. Notably, the relationships between humans and plants offer key inspiration for anticipating and employing specific means of nurturing the success of our students and colleagues. Discussed herein are plant biology-inspired practices for supporting the comprehensive development of a diverse range of students, academic staff, and faculty members as researchers, scholarly thinkers and independent practitioners. Ultimately, growth-perspective relationships with plants that are exhibited regularly by humans indicate vast potential for our capacity for progressive support of diverse individuals in the academy. In this essay, I investigate effective means for planting and cultivating growth-focused perspectives on mentoring and faculty development, and explore this phenomenon from a consideration of the intersection of plant biology and mentoring.

        Many have experienced walking into an office or home and encountering a plant that is clearly in distress. Wilting of leaves or plant discoloration are clear signs that something has gone wrong. A wilting plant is recognized by almost all as a signal that the caretaker has neglected to provide sufficient water. Keen plant caretakers or avid gardeners also often notice the yellowing of leaves as a potential signal of nutrient deficiency and a need for supplemental nutrients such as those in fertilizers. Additionally, nearly all of us have had a plant in our home that bends towards a window. Even when we are savvy enough to turn the plant to redirect its bending, we rarely stop to ponder that this is an active adaptation behavior on the part of plants to seek out light, which is needed to drive chemical conversion of light into the production of food in the form of sugars that support the plants’ growth and fitness. Such human responses to plants are evidence that many of us are good at reading the cues of plants in order to adjust our care of them.

        In other contexts, such as learning or collegial environments, we do not readily invoke our human responses to plants, which are largely predicated on a mindset or expectation that we can support the growth of individual or communities of plants though careful cultivation of the plant and stewardship of the environment in which plants exist. In learning environments with students or in relationships with colleagues, we often readily ascribe struggles of individuals to deficits possessed by the person or personal failure to thrive. Translation of our responses to plants to the care of students and colleagues through intentional mentoring holds great promise for moving from seeing deficits and failures to supporting and enabling possibilities.


Mentoring has been described as critical for supporting the development of skills and for providing various forms of care and support, including socioemotional and psychosocial support, that promote personal and career advancement and success (Haggard et al. 2011, Jacobi 1991, Kram 1985, Packard 2016). Frequently, mentoring is enacted as a hierarchical, and often one-way, flow of information from a senior, experienced individual (i.e., the mentor) to an individual in need of development (i.e., the mentee) (reviewed in Montgomery 2017). However, mentoring can also be accomplished effectively (and in many cases preferably) by a mentee connected to several individuals in a mentoring network maintained by bilateral exchanges (Higgins and Kram 2001, Montgomery 2017, Rockquemore 2013, Sorcinelli and Yun 2007). At the core of these bilateral exchanges is the reciprocal engagement of individuals in a process, in essence the relationships connecting individuals. Top-down, hierarchical mentoring and network-based mentoring have significant implications for promoting short-term or long-term career advancement, respectively (Higgins and Thomas 2001).

Despite the clear outcomes associated with mentoring, it is frequently enacted based on goals of building up deficits in individual mentees, rather than as a tool for promoting growth of inexperienced, yet otherwise capable, individuals (Harper 2010). In particular, primarily white or majority institutions commonly adopt individual-deficit mentoring models in attempting to ‘support’ individuals in adapting to academic environments, particularly in regards to minoritized or underrepresented students and faculty (Harper 2010, Packard 2016, Whittaker, Montgomery, and Martinez Acosta 2015). Broadly implemented, a deficits-focused approach is centered in a fixed mindset perspective, or one that presumes innate, fixed potential. Less frequently are attempts made to investigate or assess the impacts of prevailing and commonly accepted biases, institutional cultures, or structural barriers, such as racism, sexism, or classism, present in academic environments in which students or faculty are exhibiting challenges in progressing towards intended individual outcomes. Culture-centered or barrier-mediating interventions depend upon surveying environments comprehensively and initiating active efforts to position institutions to address barriers across entire ecosystems, not just defaulting to a unilateral focus on fixing individual-related concerns. Underlying such approaches are an embrace and promotion of a growth mindset rather than the aforementioned fixed mindset perspective (Dweck 2016). A unilateral focus on individual deficits that underlies ‘fixed mindset’ perspectives will continue to result in limited impacts and meager institutional outcomes and growth, reflective of what we have observed for years in such areas as broadening participation in learning and professional environments or gender equity initiatives, such that participants fail to fully reflect national demographics, and interventions fail to fully promote innovation (Whittaker and Montgomery 2012). Mentors and leaders have critical roles in promoting growth-focused engagement based on the potential of individuals on a day-to-day basis. Acknowledging the need to address the environments in which mentoring occurs is critical and urgent. To be effective, these approaches require centering the mentee, and the individual potential for growth, in mentoring exchanges and outcomes, as well as understanding that facilitating best outcomes is based on extensive consideration of ecosystem contexts and the potential roles mentors and leaders then have in promoting attentiveness to colleagues and cultivating cultures based on the expectation of genuine collegiality, support, and care.


Mentoring is based on personal relationships that support the growth of an individual being mentored in myriad ways (Montgomery 2017). Effective mentoring includes skills development, psychosocial or socioemotional support, and career advancement and success (Haggard et al. 2011, Jacobi 1991, Kram 1983, Packard 2016). Traditional and prevalent mentoring paradigms, which are intended to support mentees in moving ahead in academic, personal, and/or career goals, can functionally be more about the mentors and their values, i.e., affirming mentor views of valid developmental or career paths, or maintaining status quo views of success in particular disciplines or institutions. This widely accepted view of mentoring can de-center self-defined goals and views of success of individuals being mentored, and if 'successful' can actually limit the unique contributions to communities that individuals could be prepared to make if truly supported and mentored to develop individual views, goals and trajectories with an understanding of and input on promoting contextual success. It is this idea of contextual success that draws clear parallels to plant care. In this regard, mentors promote success by facilitating individual progress or advancement in a particular environment. In the case of supporting colleagues in the pursuit of self-defined goals, mentors and leaders can serve to promote habits of goals setting and of establishing expectations for broad success among diverse individuals in a particular context. Ultimately, mentoring will improve and be more successful when it is clear that excellent mentoring is not really about the mentor. The focus of excellent mentoring centers on mentors contributing to support individuals in moving forward along a self-defined path in context (Montgomery 2017).


There has been an increasing interest in many domains, from education to the workforce, in 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 (2016), the growth mindset paradigm stands in contrast to the aforementioned ‘fixed mindset’ perspective, which is based on a belief in the innate abilities of individuals. Whereas many individuals strongly support the idea of cultivating a culture based on the growth mindset concept, others struggle with associated overgeneralization of the concept and specific and impactful means of implementation (Dweck 2016). Additionally, institutional review and reward structures can actually impede the promotion of reciprocity and colleague care, as the prevailing focus on advancement reinforces self-promotion, competition, and models of individual success (Casadevall and Fang 2012, Montgomery et al. 2014). One particular challenge related to implementation of a growth-mindset focused culture is whether an emphasis on a growth mindset is interpreted or enacted primarily from the perspective of placing the responsibility on individuals to exhibit resilience or adaptation and associated expectations that they can grow in a ‘static environment’. However, based on the described relationship between humans and plants, our default human mode in many cases with plants is indeed to adopt a growth mindset.

A complementary approach to the growth mindset orientation is appreciative inquiry[1], a concept that engages strengths as a starting place for promoting individual change and growth. Appreciative inquiry has been aptly described as “affirming past and present strengths, successes, and potentials” (Whitney and Cooperrider, 2005, p. 9). Also central to this concept is the expectation “that every organization and community”—and I would add individual—“has many untapped and rich accounts of the positive” (Whitney and Cooperrider, 2005, p. 10). The appreciative inquiry approach has potential to counteract deficits framing and associated limitations that emerge therefrom in that “deficit based change approaches” have been highlighted as having “an unfortunate propensity to reinforce hierarchy” rather than promoting broad based access (Whitney and Cooperrider, 2005, p. 3). An appreciative-inquiring framing of mentoring is tightly linked to strengths-based engagement of mentees and an ability to recognize a range of cultural and navigational capital as foundations from which to launch success (Weiston-Serdan, 2017, p.66).

Readily observed human engagement with plants aligns well with both growth mindset and appreciative inquiry approaches. When a plant, or even a pet, is not faring well in its environment, we ask 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 organism (Figure 1A). This response is generally distinct from our response with other humans, which frequently highlights presumed weaknesses and deficits. Undeniably, our general human responses to plants in our environment are a proxy for how we can invoke a growth or appreciative inquiry-based mindset rather than a fixed mindset. A comprehensive growth mindset-based approach to mentoring or individual development cultivates a bilateral focus on individuals and environmental contributors in promoting success of individuals. However, in some universities and community-based outreach/engagement programs, as well as with some individual mentoring programs or comprehensive student success or faculty development initiatives, mentors and leaders are beginning to engage questions of the environmental impacts on individual potential for success or growth.

Individual-environment interactionsIn addition to assessing growth, development and progress from the perspective of each individual, there are specific environmental factors that garner attention when assessing the potential for individual success. Unfortunately, in direct departure from our common responses to plants, we often hesitate to ask questions of the impact of one’s environment on supporting or hampering individual learning and career success. This point is distinctly of interest as we consider parallels to our responses to plant growth in our environments. Indeed, the most common response a caretaker has when a plant exhibits impaired or less than optimal growth is to begin first and foremost with an assessment of the plant’s environment. Frequently asked questions are whether the plant is receiving enough or too much light; whether the nutrients needed to sustain plant life are available, accessible, and sufficient; whether the plant is being watered adequately; whether pests or herbivores are causing life-threatening damage or reduced fitness of the plant. A thorough analysis of the potential impacts of the living and non-living components of a plant’s environment is generally conducted. This assessment generally is then followed by interventions and subsequent valuations of whether the applied mediations to attempt to make things better for the individual plant are actually working. In the event that a plant remains challenged in growth, a common outcome is for the caretaker to determine that the problem lies with their caretaking skills–for example, we frequently hear individuals declaring that they simply don’t have a “green thumb”. Whether the plant itself has a genetic defect or is incapable of growing successfully in its environment, i.e., attributes of a deficit state, are generally the last types of questions that we ask about a plant that is not surviving or thriving in its environment. With other humans, we often do the reverse and can be quick to recognize weaknesses or judge individuals as incapable of growth or progress when challenges arise. We often default to such responses rather than asking bilateral questions about the individual and the environment in which the individual exists. With students, especially those from groups underrepresented in the academy, and with junior faculty, again likely those from groups underrepresented in their disciplines and institutions, this is particularly prevalent. When such minoritized or underrepresented individuals encounter challenges acclimating to or succeeding in particular environments, the first response is often to label them ‘unable to succeed’. The environment is presumed largely innocent of detrimental impacts, or of containing ‘environmental barriers’ to success (Whittaker and Montgomery 2012), which indeed may be limiting the potential of the individual. We need to invoke our natural human responses to plants to probe many aspects of the environment, as well as the efficacy (or lack thereof) of our responsive tending of the environment as critical for promoting success broadly.


To cultivate individual growth using growth-promoting perspectives drawn from successful cultivation of plants, specific human responses to plants can inspire effective leadership and mentoring approaches. Here, I explore considerations of specific environmental parameters associated with effective growth of individuals and discuss effective means for applying these to supporting individual students and faculty members from diverse backgrounds. Specifically, I outline and provide associated mentoring lessons that should be considered across a range of contexts and appropriate measures that can be enacted.

Plant Lesson 1We probe the environment first and extensively when plants in our environment are not faring well.

Mentoring Implication 1—Unlike the approaches that we frequently take with students and junior colleagues in which we often ask questions about personal deficits first, our engagement with and mentoring of individuals would be well-informed, and indeed greatly enriched and elevated, by our practices with plants to ask questions first and systematically about the impacts of the environment on the potential for individual growth and success. We should not by default presume infallibility of the system.

Plant Lesson 2We recognize that in some cases new and at other times the relocation of existing resources are needed to support plant growth.

Mentoring Implication 2—When specific environmental deficits or needs have been identified, 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 the individual’s growth and development. Sometimes the default assumption is that new resources are needed, which can readily become an impediment to progress or innovation in resource-limited environments. While new resources may be required, it is also possible that pre-existing resources simply need to be identified or recognized and then relocated. For example, water in a faucet is present in the environment but it is of absolutely no use to a plant until it is relocated from the faucet to the soil in which a plant is growing (Figure 1B). Thus, there are many efforts that can begin immediately to have an impact on students and colleagues when there is a full awareness of what the individual needs are and when there is cultivated knowledge of which resources exist in a particular environment. In such instances, a primary and significant role for a mentor is to serve as an environmental steward in regard to being aware of resources in the environment and to learning about an individual mentee’s needs to facilitate connecting the individual to salient resources.

In other cases, available resources are the right “type” but deemed to be insufficient to support maximal growth of an individual in a particular context. In such a case, tap water from the faucet may be substandard to purified water due to impurities or other issues. Thus, a resource is available, but is not of sufficient efficacy to yield desired growth. Here, a mentor would serve to recognize when an available resource is insufficient and facilitate connection to suitable alternatives or assist in altering an already available resource, e.g. equivalent to identifying filters to purify polluted tap water. Leaders may facilitate such transformation of resources into one’s that serve better through providing developmental support or training to improve mentoring in a department. Leaders also have key roles in establishing an expectation for and rewarding colleagues for serving in such supportive roles.

It is not always the case that needed resources are already present in the environment. For example, extending our example of supporting plant growth, entirely new resources such as bottled water or fertilizers rather than mere tap or filtered water may be needed. This is an opportunity in which a mentor or leader can help enable the identification and acquisition of new resources. The various roles of mentors in identifying and accessing resources positions them as “opportunity brokers” who can serve to help individuals connect to resources, spanning from practical to mentoring, to promote their success (Weiston-Serdan, 2017, p. 41; Montgomery, 2017).

Plant Lesson 3We recognize that caretakers and their specific preparation, expertise, and efficacy in using acquired expertise, critically matter to plant persistence and optimized survival.

Mentoring Implication 3Given two plants with equal potential for growth, the one which is connected to available and sufficient resources will grow better and exhibit greater productivity than a plant with equal potential that does not have access at all or only has limited access to needed 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 the process of supporting growth and potential. Likewise, mentors and leaders matter greatly in supporting the success of individual mentees. Given two individuals of equal aptitude, the individual connected to the right mentoring resources or imbedded in the right mentoring network is much more likely to succeed. The potential for success and mentoring outcomes are supported greatly by the efficacy of the caretakers in such an established mentoring network. To effectively do so requires prioritizing such assessment of care between students and faculty instructors, or among colleagues. Leaders can be critical in setting intentional and explicit goals, as well as providing protected time and incentives to those individuals who seek to elevate their care of colleagues and stewardship of communities.

Plant Lesson 4We seek external expertise when our own caretaking efforts are not effective or when we lack knowledge about the underlying causes of the impairments or limitations in plant growth.

Mentoring Implication 4When 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 likewise can seek external advice from others with experience, or mentors can seek training to improve their mentoring (Byars-Winston et al. 2015, Pfund et al. 2006, Pfund et al. 2014, Pfund et al. 2015). Such advice may center on specific mentoring actions to take, on specific assistance in increasing mentor awareness of resources, or facilitating connections of those mentored to available resources.[2] Just as it is not seen as a weakness to seek input on plant care practices from those who have better experience, expertise, or success in caring for these organisms, we need to promote environments and cultures in which seeking external advice of mentoring is seen as a strength, indeed a responsibility, and actively encouraged, recognized, and rewarded.

Plant Lesson 5We attribute a failure to support plant growth to our own care-taking and stewardship inadequacies, inabilities, or a need to seek opportunities to improve our care regiment.

Mentoring Implication 5—In the unfortunate event that a mentoring relationship or exchange is not progressing towards successful guidance of an individual student or junior faculty member, one of the most useful lessons we can gain from the care humans offer plants is 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” when the care of plants is not successful. In the case of a “care failure”, caretakers may allow a plant to be cared for by another who demonstrates the ability to complete the task successfully. In the mentoring realm this is a much less likely outcome, yet may be closely linked to increasing retention of mentees with diverse levels of experience or preparation, or in cases where cultural or other mismatches may impede success in a mentoring exchange. In the event of mismatches related to culture, in particular, emergent interventions related to “culturally relevant practice” in mentoring can potentially improve mentors’ abilities to support a range of individuals from diverse backgrounds (Weiston-Serdan, 2017, p. 44; Byars-Winston, 2014). Specifically, such culturally-relevant practices can “help us to understand how we can focus on and leverage the wealth of the culture in marginalized and minoritized communities”, in addition to assessing systems-based structural barriers that impede processes (Weiston-Serdan, 2017, p. 44; Whittaker and Montgomery, 2012). In the case 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., engaging with a mentee for whom one’s specific mentoring skills are not serving well, could lead to harm or complete failure to thrive (Weiston-Serdan, 2017, p. 59). In all cases, the focus should be on supporting growth; thus, doing no harm, independent of intentions.

        It is imperative that we address the prevalent culture in the academy of outright ignoring “care failures” or even worse tolerating them as long as the ill-effective mentor is a “productive” scholar in regards to attracting recognized accolades or financial support, or as it relates to prolifically generating “high impact” scholarly outcomes such as peer-reviewed publications. In this regard, leaders have opportunities (and arguably responsibilities) to establish and cultivate environments where effective colleague care is expected, encouraged and specifically empowered.

Plant Lesson 6As a very last resort, when a plant is not faring well, we may attribute this outcome to a failure of a plant to thrive.

Mentoring Implication 6In cases where a caretaker has exhausted all environmental interventions, has sought training to improve potential care outcomes, or has unsuccessfully called on another to intervene, the individual may ultimately reach a decision that the plant exhibits deficits or is incapable of thriving. However, in such instances there is often no real negative judgement of the plant per se, but often a reluctant acceptance of failure to support its growth. Mentors and leaders need to cultivate such a perspective for individuals that are in their environments seeking support for success. A failure to realize success in one environment or with a particular set of caretakers does not necessarily mean that an individual cannot be successful elsewhere. Ultimately, attempting to reflect on processes in a manner that still assume the potential for growth of all individuals can keep open avenues to consider that the right set of conditions, environmental factors, and caretakers needed to support an individual’s success nevertheless can be identified. Such a perspective can leave the individual seeking impactful mentoring input heartened rather than completely demoralized in regards to potential alternatives. This perspective leaves us pursuing non-deficit- or appreciative-inquiry-based mentoring which “becomes much more about interrogating context and acting based on critical analysis of that context, rather than an immotile relationship reinforced by hierarchy and saviorism” (Weiston-Serdan, 2017, pp. 1-2).


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 in a shared space. Our growth-perspective and appreciative-inquiry driven engagement with plants can be used to transform the experiences of students and junior colleagues who are being mentored towards attainment of personal and professional goals. Admittedly there are limits to analogies such as the plant-based one presented here, including that there are many impediments to implementing effective mentoring in many environments. Such impediments include limited knowledge and training, a lack of rewards associated with effective mentoring, limited structures of assessment and accountability, and the prevalent cultures of academic institutions which fail to reward growth-based, care-centered approaches to engagements with colleagues. Our environments consistently prioritize individualized models of success over community-based collegiality and reciprocity. However, where effectively enacted, pivoting from a frequently default deficit-based approach to mentoring, especially of individuals from groups underrepresented in academic and professional environments, to a growth-based mentoring approach has great potential for significantly increasing the retention of individuals we recruit to these spaces. Furthermore, the existence and thriving of these individuals in our environment has potential not only in regards to supporting their growth, but holds great promise in regards to the associated impacts on the community afforded by their presence and thriving therein. 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 drive our care of colleagues to support their success and thriving.


The author thanks Dr. Marquita Qualls, host and producer of the “Beyond the Bench: STEMulating Career Conversations” podcast for reigniting my focus on writing this essay in a recent podcast conversation ( Research in the author’s lab on plant growth responses to the environment is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant no. MCB-1515002 to Beronda L. Montgomery). Work on growth responses of photosynthetic organisms and on mentoring is supported by the Michigan State University Foundation.


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Figure 1. What mentoring lessons arise from thoughtful assessment of humans’ care of plants in shared environments? (A) Human responses to plants that are not faring well include extensively probing the environmental factors that may be contributing to failure to thrive rather than defaulting to an individual-deficit causation. (B) Sometimes supporting growth requires relocating resources present in the environment to proximity of individuals to support growth. For example relocated water from faucet to the soil in which a plant is growing results in a healthy watered plant, compared to a similar unwatered plant that does not have access to the resource. Photos from public domain, photos in panel B by Victor M. Vicente Selvas.



 Appreciative Inquiry Commons,

[2] enter for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research,; National Research Mentoring Network,;

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