Mentoring in the Workplace: A Modern Approach

by Maura Nevel Thomas

Mentoring relationships in the workplace are key to ensuring long-term employee success, strengthening both the people and the organization. After all, workplace mentor programs not only demonstrate that the organization cares about its people and their development, but they also give workers a safe space to grow.

But with aspects like invasive technology and the shift to open floor plans, leaders often struggle to manage their workload past the distractions, leaving little time to be an available and effective mentor.

A New Approach to Mentoring in the Workplace

Mentoring is even more important in the modern workplace because knowledge work is affected by an employee’s satisfaction with their work, and their relationship with their manager is a key component to this satisfaction. Here are five ways to effectively mentor knowledge workers.

Set the team up for success by clarifying decision-making power. Without clarity, it’s difficult for employees to decode which decisions fall within their role and what requires outside approval. Leaders need to clearly define roles and responsibilities so employees can act with confidence. In turn, this autonomy creates a solutions-oriented culture, empowering employees to solve problems independently.

Trader Joe’s employees, for example, know their goal is to build a community of food-lovers. To build this culture, they know they have the freedom to do things like open packages in the store for customers to taste, creating more loyal customers.

Dedicate time for regular weekly meetings for direct reports. Most leaders adhere to the “open door policy,” but often mistake this as being available at all times. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and doing so only fuels the fire of constant distraction. More effective workplace mentoring means setting boundaries to make sure that, not only is there time for mentoring, but leaders can manage their attention, having an opportunity for more undistracted work time and to be more present in discussions with team members.

One solution is to schedule time each week with direct reports, and keep those commitments. When employees have dedicated, one-to-one time with their boss/mentor, they are more likely to save up non-emergency problems to discuss at the meeting. Overall, this means more time for workers to develop their own solutions and less interruptions for the leader throughout the week.

Don’t be too available. When leaders aren’t always accessible, it challenges employees to solve their own problems, building skills and confidence in developing solutions rather than seeking answers. This reduces distractions for leaders, distilling down issues to the key concerns where their expertise is needed. Mentoring in the workplace doesn’t mean doing the work for people; it’s teaching them to do it themselves.

One caution: Leaders need to be careful not to be so unavailable that their team feels “shut out.” The “regular meetings” idea prevents this issue, and leaders should always designate a communication channel for urgent and time-sensitive requests only, such as a text to their personal cell phone.

Mentor in hindsight. An important function of mentoring in the workplace is building a strong talent pool. However, employees learn better when they have the opportunity to experience successes and failures in their own way, rather than by getting preemptive advice. When leaders allow workers to “fail forward” and give space for processing these growth opportunities afterward, it helps build top talent.

Leaders can open meetings and discussions with staff by asking about challenges faced that week, what was done to address them, and then discussing with their team how it worked out. This allows leaders to “mentor in hindsight” by offering advice when reflecting back with the employee, instead of allowing themselves to be interrupted “on the front end” to answer questions and solicit input. We know that “experience is the best teacher,” so leaders can be a better mentor when they provide role clarity, as discussed above, let their employees learn from experience and reflection, strengthen the lesson with reflection and advice after the fact, and leave the employees prepared to apply these lessons to future challenges.

Model overall health and wellness. “Actions speak louder than words” is never more true than when it comes to mentoring in the workplace. The behavior leaders model can often be a more effective mentoring technique than what they say. Mentors who take time to nourish their own mental and physical health show the team that work-life balance and wellness are important.

Good leadership changes with the shifting needs of an organization; mentoring in the workplace is no different. Taking these five simple steps can accelerate a leader’s impact in a mentoring role and build stronger future leaders to sustain great companies and great cultures in a modern workplace.

Model ideal behavior. Here are some suggestions for leaders to model ideal behavior: Make time for exercise, and ensure the team knows it. Disconnect from work after office hours. Take all of one’s vacation time, and encourage the team to take theirs. Provide healthy snacks and opportunities for employees to have restful breaks during the day.

Did You Know?

Organizations that invest in developing a workplace mentoring program experience a significant number of benefits. These benefits range from increased employee productivity and decreased turnover, to reduced learning costs and more comprehensive knowledge transfer. In fact, nearly 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a mentoring program in place. 

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, the most widely-cited authority on attention management, and creator of her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System, in use by thousands of companies in virtually every industry. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time and author of three books. She’s also a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review.

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