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.
So, are you willing to let your guard down? How do you feel about recent developments, what has been the toughest part of your past 12 months? What have you gained or has been your greatest personal lesson? How do you feel about the future of work, the business you are in, your industry?
As much as leaders and mentors are dealers in hope, never hesitate to rip the band aid off, talk straight and be honest. Mentees or those you lead are most certainly attracted to authenticity, candour, and vulnerability.
Be more intentional in your role
Intentional mentors are opportunistic to create or plan purposeful, deliberate conversations and even exposure. You could be intentional to discuss your mentees levels of competence - can they deliver expected results with their current skills and capabilities. Levels of relatedness - do they feel secure and connected within their team and network. Level of autonomy - do they feel they can operate independently and freely.
You could also be pragmatic to seek out learning opportunities wherever you can. This does not mean that you take the responsibility for your mentees’ development, but you show an understanding of, and a commitment to, your mentees’ development needs. This could make you a valuable soundboard during challenging assignments or high stake projects.
We know that the bulk of learning (approximately 70%) happens through observation and hands on experience in the work place, and then to unpack or reflect on these lessons with coaches and mentors; This new “hands on” might now have to be a virtually created experience.
Embrace digital sources to get closer to your mentees or to connect them with your own network. Make sure you check in with your mentees using e-mails, texts or video calls. Invite them to that Zoom meeting, send a link to a YouTube clip or a screenshot from a book you are reading. These are all ideas to create opportunities to be more intentional and to leverage our digital world.
Encourage greater collaboration
Research shows that uncertainty and anxiety make people more risk-averse in a crisis; as a result, they are less likely to seek out different perspectives. They tend to fall back on actions and solutions that have worked in the past. The desire to try to bring things under control can also lead to a do-it-alone mentality. Ultimately (finances, job opportunities, even physical support) becomes a self-preservation effort.
Mentors should highlight the importance of effective collaboration for short and long-term success. Particularly in a crisis or dealing with adversity the quality of our choices and decisions are amplified when mentees pull together a range of individuals with unique, experience and perspectives to solve rapidly changing, complex problems. An expanded network allows a mentee to see risks and opportunities from different angles so that they can generate new solutions and adapt dynamically to changing situations.