The three-way conversation between coach, client and the client’s direct manager, is commonplace in coaching. Sometimes also involving HR, it provides a valuable opportunity to clarify agendas, establish the support needed from the direct manager, and improve the relationship between the manager and the employee (Clutterbuck, 2014). Often the role of the coach here is to coach both the manager and the employee together to help develop their collaboration and alignment of expectations.
However, in mentoring we do not recommend this three-way conversation between mentee, mentor and mentee’s direct manager – or two-way conversations between the mentor and the direct manager - to avoid reintroducing formal power into the mentoring relationship. We have heard of and experienced many examples of this going very wrong.
The mentoring relationship is the confidential learning space for the mentee and the mentor. It includes a certain level of intimacy and disclosure to be effective and is sometimes called a “professional friendship”. To enhance the learning and development of the mentee, the mentor’s role is to support the mentee in developing agency, self-advocacy and independence. The moment the mentor takes over, solves problems, smooths the way too much and aligns with the direct manager, there is a bigger risk that the mentor undermines this development and disempowers the mentee. Rather, mentors should help mentees think through, plan and rehearse the conversations they need to have with their direct managers and other powerful people in the organisation.
Power dynamics within the organisation
Most often, mentors and mentees come from the same organisation, so there may already be an existing relationship between the mentor and the mentee’s direct manager. The closer the mentor and the direct manager is to each other in the organisation, the more this may complicate the three-way dynamic and influence the willingness to be open or to challenge. The perceived risk of opening up as a mentee to the mentor and the mentor’s perceived risk in challenging the mentee threatens the “safe space” that mentoring should provide.
Most mentors (and mentees) will struggle with confidentiality from time to time, wondering whether to keep information disclosed by a mentee (or a mentor) in confidence. However, maintaining confidentiality is central to professionalism and inextricably linked to respect and trust (Johnson and Ridley, 2008). Therefore, mentors and mentees need to explore what confidentiality means to them and develop clear ground rules to manage their collaboration.
Good questions to ask yourselves, before opening up for a mentor-direct manager conversation are the following (Clutterbuck, 2014):
- What prevents the mentee from having the same conversation with their direct manager (and /or HR) on their own?
- What will be the impact in terms of the mentee taking responsibility for his or her own issues?
- How might this impact the relationship between the mentee and his/her direct manager?
In summary, the “safe” position is not to have direct conversations between the mentor and the mentee’s direct manager.
Johnson, WB and Ridley, C. R. (2008) The Elements of Ethics for Professionals. New York: Palgrave McMillan
Clutterbuck, D. (2014) https://www.davidclutterbuckpartnership.com/