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To ask or to offer? When to coach and when to mentor.

If you manage a team of people who all want your undivided attention, it can be difficult to carve out time to properly help with whatever challenges they might be facing. As a result, you may find that the easiest form of assistance is to tell. You know the answer, they get what they need, and you both get to move on quickly.

But do you ever get the feeling that you’re doing too much directing? Are you missing opportunities to help your people help themselves? Have you inadvertently created a permission culture where everything goes through you, and nobody quite knows why?

Learning to become a less directive manager is one of the ingredients of psychological safety, that holy grail where everyone feels they can bring their whole selves to work, taking responsibility for their decisions and ownership of their actions.

So, what’s stopping you?

One of the biggest perceived obstacles to coaching and mentoring is the idea that they take a long time ‘to do’. This might be sometimes true if you’re a member of an internal coaching network or part of a mentoring scheme that this lends itself to ringfenced time in a room or on Zoom.

But coaching and mentoring as a manager is not really like this. It’s fluid, in the moment and tends to place the emphasis on efficiency rather than depth. In fact, it’s not something you do at all. The best managers naturally build it into their day-to-day conversations without needing to make grand announcements of the ‘I’m going to coach and mentor you now’ variety. It just sort of happens.

So, what is coaching and what is mentoring and when might one approach be more appropriate than the other? First, what they have in common.

They both facilitate the thinking of the other person, and both assume that the answers won’t come from you as the manager, which means you don’t need to be the expert in everyone else’s problems or be the fixer every time. If you manage the process and enable the other person to bring the content, you both get to be adults in the conversation rather than creating an unconscious parent-child dynamic.

So, what’s the difference?

Think of coaching as a questioning style of problem solving, where your questions prompt the other person’s understanding of their situation and help them generate their own options and plans.

Be aware though that you’re not asking to become the expert. That’s what consultants do before providing solutions and coaching is not the same thing.

Think of mentoring as making offers. Providing content of one form or another can open the other person’s thinking in a different way to coaching. You might offer advice, provide a perspective, tell a story, or give some feedback.

But be aware that you should do this to inform the other person’s perspective, not to be right. That would be telling dressed up as mentoring.

In each case, the best managers move between coaching and mentoring all in the service of helping the other person figure things out for themselves. No song and dance, no room required, and no big announcements.

Just effective conversations which help people generate their own solutions, take responsibility for their actions, and feel a greater sense of being in control without always coming to you for the fix.

How could you use both approaches more in the conversations you have with your team members and what might be the benefits of doing so?To ask or to offer.

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