Reimagine Mentorship

By Niël Steinmann

As a good friend recently reminded me “The times we are in require human kindness and empathy. Let us discover the humanity in each of us and to be there as equals with one another through an uncertain time.” Maybe these thoughts will inspire us, all of us, to reimagine our roles as mentors in families, schools, faith based communities and the teams and organisations we lead. We have experienced the most disruptive year in modern times. I have not met anyone who has not been affected in one way or another by the pandemic. In all of these disruptions, the world of work has become increasingly impersonal and clinical, lacking a sense of human connect and true engagement. We are staring into webcams and are expected to connect with people we often can’t see. We are told to adapt and to be productive, to figure out personal and work boundaries and still commit to organisational growth and sustainability.

Brene Brown states “We are hardwired for connection and engagement. When learning and working are dehumanised – when you no longer see or encourage individuals at work, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform – we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas and our passion.”

Fact is, people want to be heard, they want to feel appreciated and want to know that their contribution matters. But they can’t always turn to their managers, who may be consumed with solving problems and overwhelmed with keeping their organizations running. Workers may also fear that managers, who hold the key to their future advancement, may view a request for help as a weakness.

This means that mentors can play a critical role, providing a stabilizing force, someone who can be a soundboard when mentees are triggered, scared, burned out, or confused—all off the record. Mentoring at such stressful times isn’t simple, and the first step is to take care of yourself. You can’t offer emotional support if you don’t first “put on the mask for yourself”. Then you can turn to helping your mentees by offering them emotional support and concrete tactics and advice.

Let us reimagine mentorship and how we can optimize this role (formally or informally) during these challenging times.

“Observe with your ears”

This beautiful phrase has inspired me to learn from animals. They use their ears to detect, distinguish and respond, rather than to purely rely on their eyesight. The trouble is that listening for us as humans is a skill few diligently practice even in the best of times, and it falls by the wayside during periods of uncertainty, hardship and stress. With the world effectively on pause amidst all the uncertainty, now is a unique opportunity to listen to those close to you and “observe with your ears”.

This means there is more to listening than just being quiet so the other person can talk or to respond by shifting the conversation to yourself or another topic. Listening is the ability to pick up on what is said and how it is said, to test understanding, to paraphrase or to ask a question that will encourage further elaboration. Remember people typically don’t want you to solve their problems, much less ignore or minimize their feelings. They just want recognition, understanding and, above all, acceptance.

I’ve come to realize that there are times when you don’t have to say anything,” Our responses are important, but they are not everything. Just your presence, even virtually and your willingness to listen, speaks volumes.

More frequent, spontaneous 'face-to-face' time

It is important to carve out moments to check in with a focus on interactive, informal and personal, rather than traditional corporate communications. These conversations may feel more personal than usual, but there are powerful benefits to connect with your mentees in an informal way. The longer your mentees go without seeing you or fellow employees, the more isolated and disconnected they become. Isolation is problematic because it cripples people’s ability to be productive. Let them know what they are feeling is natural and acceptable.

You don’t always need a specific agenda — just check in and chat. Keep your interactions “light”, even sprinkling in humor when appropriate. Jokes and laughter will help mentees to connect and take back control of their lives again.

And here is an additional thought, this time of increased video chatting, let your mentees come as they are. Professional dress is unwarranted during this time of social distancing. There might also be others in their homes. Acknowledge this so that no one feels awkward if a spouse or child bursts into the room or interrupts your chat. Let them know you expect the possibility of the same disruption at your end.

Your check in’ conversations should allow you to exhibit vulnerability and authenticity

I recently checked in with an old mentor and manager who now lives in Canada. The new virtual landscape provided us with an opportunity to connect “face to face” after so many years. I remember he said three simple – yet powerful – words: “I am struggling.” Almost instantly, my own perspective and fears began to settle, replaced by a sense of connection. Knowing I wasn’t alone made a difference.

'Authenticity' has gained a reputation as being a business buzzword, but it's a real way to connect with your mentees to demonstrate that you show up just the way you are and that you genuinely care. Your mentees don’t want a cold, contractually agreed mentoring process driven by staged conversations.