By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow.
This blog was part of a series written for FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they mentor others.
My work in mentoring, and mentor development naturally covers ‘training’ in good mentoring practice. Actually, I prefer to say mentor ‘development’, because ‘training’ is too didactic a notion to be a good way of describing how I support new mentors to get to grips with the practices involved. Mentoring is in itself a facilitative, non-directive activity which I aim to teach by example, and through offering mentors choice about what they want to include in their toolkit. Structuring and delivering good quality developmental conversations for your mentee is a personal practice as well as a professional practice.
As with all types of leadership practice, there’s not a ‘right way’ to do mentoring, each mentor chooses their own approach, style and practices, and chooses how and when to apply them in different partnerships, situations and contexts. However, there are certain frameworks into which we fit these practice choices, and the framework for good practice in mentoring, is that we avoid ‘telling’ ‘instructing’ and ‘giving advice’ whenever there’s a better way to support our mentee to develop.
That said, advice can be great. Giving advice is almost always intended as a helpful behaviour, done with the best of intentions to support our mentees, colleagues, friends, and families, who present us with a problem. But is our advice always received as intended? It’s likely not, we have all witnessed the frustrations that unsolicited advice can provoke.
When we think of a mentoring session, it’s common to think of two people who sit down together, do some talking, and as a result of this conversation the more junior ‘mentee’ gets some advice, information or tips from the more senior ‘mentor’, and ‘is developed’. However, the idea that mentoring is equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what mentoring involves. Using advice as a way to solve every problem, can be based in assumptions about what the aim of mentoring is, and what the mentee wants to get out of the conversation. Take this oversimplified mentoring process for example:
- mentee has a problem based on a knowledge gap,
- mentor uses their superior knowledge to solve the problem, by giving some advice,
- mentee’s problem is solved because they now possess that knowledge…
But does it always work like that? Are all problems just caused by a simple knowledge gap and fixed by knowing the right answer?
Are mentoring problems always solved with the right advice?
First, let’s ask, are mentoring conversations always about problems? Engaging with mentoring is not just ‘for problems’, but can be even more effective if it’s viewed as a proactive development activity ‘for planning’. Positioning the value of mentoring as an aide to planning, prevents mentoring becoming a reactive rollercoaster of just in time problem solving. And also prevents wasted opportunities, where the mentee says at the end of the programme “I didn’t get in touch with my mentor because a problem never came up.”
Where problems do occur, think also that it’s not very empowering to have to have someone solve your problem for you. In leaping in to solve the issue, we deny the mentee the chance to develop their own problem-solving skills. We undermine their own authority to be in control of their way forward.
And say there is a particular problem the mentee wants to solve, but there isn’t a simple ‘right answer’ to the problem? What if the mentor has no prior experience of the issue? What if the mentor’s advice comes from a different set of experiences and assumptions about how the world works? What if the mentor’s knowledge is out of date, or only applies in certain contexts? Their advice in any of these situations is likely to fall short of the intended mark, and to frustrate the mentee.
Importantly what if the ‘problem’ is not a knowledge gap at all, but a confidence gap, or a motivation gap, or a permission gap or something more complex like how to improve a challenging workplace relationship. These are things that the mentor can’t just ‘hand over’ to the mentee, and so we have to think differently about how to help.
Developing a ‘repertoire beyond advice’ is a must have for a good mentor.
So as mentors we try to resist jumping straight into advice-giving mode, and instead we listen in order to support our mentee to reflect and articulate the issues they face. We amplify their voice, help them think out loud, hear what they have to say, and make sense of their situation. We use coaching questions to prompt the mentee to think out loud, dig deeper, and self-evaluate. Developing a facilitative coaching approach means you can be helpful even if you’ve never experienced what your mentee needs to tackle, and it means you can help them learn how to problem solve for themselves, handing over control, and building confidence and empowerment.
Back in 2017 I ran focus groups with some experienced academic mentors, asking them, “In your experience what are the pros and cons of giving advice to your mentees?”
Here’s what they said…
(+) Pros of giving advice:
- It’s quicker just to tell someone the answer, or tell them what to do.
- You may go through all their own suggestions and they still end up taking your advice so it can feel a waste of time.
- It shows someone you can relate to what they are experiencing.
- It lets you as the mentor know that you have been helpful. It’s much easier to track whether you have done a good job if you had something tangible to hand over to the mentee.
- It makes your mentee feel grateful to you, and value your time and wisdom.
- If your mentee is stuck, it can unstick them, even if they reject it, they have to articulate why, it can get their creativity going again.
- A mentee might expect advice and if they don’t get it they feel disappointed.*
- Your suggestion might be insightful. It might be something outside your mentee’s awareness, or a genuine blind spot, or something totally new to them.
- Your suggestion might stop your mentee from making a serious mistake, wasting their time or getting into a difficult situation.
(—) Cons of giving advice:
- We don’t know as much about our mentee as they themselves do. We may make a diagnosis about what they need or should do based on very limited information.
- Listening to your suggestion halts their thinking process. Thinking out loud is very powerful and you interrupt that process when you suggest a solution.
- It creates a dependency-like relationship. If you solve a problem for them they come back to you next time there’s a new problem.
- It’s disempowering to a person if you always know more than them, or always want to ‘one up’ their ideas.
- A mentee will prioritise your advice over trusting themselves. As a mentor, you are the senior colleague so they feel obliged to take your advice, they feel they owe it to you.
- A mentee in a complex situation can feel relieved that you’ve made the decision, and act without evaluating whether it’s really appropriate for them or not.
- What if the advice doesn’t work? This can lead to blame, if you suggest a way forward, you always own it, you can get the credit, or the blame.
- A mentee can get overwhelmed with good advice and feel like they have to put it all into practice before meeting with you again. You never see them again because they never complete the list.
- We are all just more motivated to actually follow through and carry out ideas that are our own, we’re more likely to put them into practice.
Please take time to consider the reflections above, and see if you can spot them playing out in practice the next time you give advice, or choose not to.
To conclude, coaching those you aim to support rather than advising, is another string to your mentor bow. It means you don’t have to always know the right answer, and that you are supporting your mentee to build confidence, independence, and good problem-solving skills – not just solving the problem for them.
There is still always a right time for advice, usually when there is at least a semi-right answer and the issue is more straightforward. Good advice is given with permission, so help your mentees evaluate your suggestion though rather than just accepting it. Try adding “What can you take from my suggestion that would work for you?’ to the end of your piece of advice. Remind your mentee they aren’t obliged to take your advice too, and let them choose to adapt or reject it, if it doesn’t really work for them.
I hope you now feel more enabled to choose the right supportive approach for the right situation.