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The Superior as an Informal Mentor

Our observations reveal that that more and more organizations we work with choose to engage employees involved in formal mentoring programmes in development processes. 

Our observations reveal that that more and more organizations we work with choose to engage employees involved in formal mentoring programmes in development processes.

The people that become mentors tend to be individuals from within the organization, who demonstrate authority, and long-running experience in a given field. It is usually managers who are invited to take on the role of a mentor – which from the perspective of mentoring goals’ is the natural direction taken by human resource departments. Most of the most prominent factors of the mentor-mentee relationship is the passing on of knowledge, development of skills, and – what isn’t always obvious – supporting and appreciating the mentee’s progress. Moreover, it is important for this relationship to be built upon trust and respect. Similarly to individual coaching, what is of critical importance is the “chemistry” between the mentor and mentee; a type of intellectual understanding, and a two-way willingness to cooperate.

In practice, it is useful for the both sides to undergo a “trial session” in order to verify the qualities described above. When carrying out formal mentoring programmes, a particular challenge is the situation in which the mentor becomes the direct superior of the mentee. Here, extra risks arise between the mentor (superior) and the mentee (subordinate), which could disrupt the establishment of an effective partnership that aids development. From the perspective of the mentor (the superior) a tendency to rely on formal dependencies and assessment may occur. Moreover, the worker may experience a lack of acceptance for failure or mishaps. From the perspective of the mentee (subordinate), what could prove a challenge could be facing the authority of the superior, commencing independent thought, and bringing to life ideas that are different from those recommended by the mentor. At the same, the mentor (superior) – mentee (subordinate) arrangement excludes any additional experiences and inspirations that a third person (from outside the organization) could bring into the whole mentoring process. Because of this, we would recommend to pay attention to formal dependencies and their influence on relations when matching up mentoring pairs. When a manager makes the decision to undertake the role of a mentor, he/she begins a development path not only for the subordinate, but also for him/herself.

Our experience in development work with managers and future mentors indicates that the competencies to develop and strengthen include the aforementioned willingness to share knowledge and experience, as well as the ability to give feedback, inspire, appreciate. The first of these –  the willingness to share knowledge and experience – pertains to passing on information in a manner that is clear, logical, and fitted to the needs and expectations of the subordinate. We also put the ability of giving feedback – crucial to the learning and development process of adults – in the group of desired competencies. In practice, giving feedback in a way that is open, constructive, and refers to facts and concrete issues will strengthen and deepen the development process of the subordinate. The next competency is the ability to inspire – understood as encouraging people to look for solutions, giving them space to initiate their own experiences and good practices. Our list is concluded the often marginalized by manager mentors capability to appreciate: showing recognition towards the achievements of a subordinate. Positive reimbursing, giving support, or celebrating successes – used in development working by the mentor, will increase the motivation of the subordinate, and build energy for further actions. When appreciating, the mentor builds his/her authority, respect, and trust in regard to the relationship with the mentee. At the same time, he/she builds a sense of security, without which the development work would be pointless. Looking back at our experiences, we know that work with a mentor is of particular value, when the mentee finds in the mentor not only a knowledge-sharing expert, but also a partner, who will build space to develop and inspire a “fresh” outlook on the realization of business goals that the mentee is expected to carry out.

In particular, we encourage all mentors to:

  • appreciate and positively strengthen the mentees
  • allow space for non-conventional ideas on their side
  • accept the possibility of errors and failures
  • not share their knowledge ex cathedra, but by inspiring others
  • not transfer their experience from earlier relations onto what is happening in the current mentoring