5 MIN READ | Positive Psychology

Professor Nigel MacLennan

What Is Mentoring? According to the Author of the Number 1 Bestselling Book: ‘Coaching and Mentoring’

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Professor Nigel MacLennan, (2022, January 10). What Is Mentoring? According to the Author of the Number 1 Bestselling Book: ‘Coaching and Mentoring’. Psychreg on Positive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/what-mentoring/
Reading Time: 5 minutes

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What is mentoring?  What differentiates mentoring from other development methods? When does mentoring work? How does mentoring work? What are its success factors? How is it conducted?  

When trying to understand a process, such as mentoring, it can be useful to trace the roots of the word; its etymology. Like many contemporary words, mentoring’s meaning has been created and the word itself has morphed over the centuries. Without going in to too much detail, mens – to think, manas – mind, monitor – one who checks, momona – yearn, and many other words and meanings have all influenced the creation and meaning of ‘mentor’ and ‘mentoring.’

What does mentoring mean in contemporary use? That appears to be a simple question, yet could require a PhD thesis, or ten, to answer. Here is what I have observed. In some organisations mentoring is used to mean coaching. Across a range of institutions and contexts, mentoring is variously used as a synonym for training, teaching, role-modelling, advising, consulting…

When a word is used with so many different meanings, understanding what is actually going on becomes difficult. What is going on? All meanings seem to have one thing in common: a person is being helped or developed in some way. Test that for yourself: what do mentoring, coaching, training, teaching, counselling, advising, and consulting have in common? They are means to equip a person to perform at a higher standard.

Is that the case? Here I would love to give you a definitive answer, but alas there isn’t one? Why, because there is no internationally agreed definition of mentoring. 

How then do we progress our understanding of something that is so ill-defined? By doing what everyone before has done, and choosing a working definition. Let’s work towards that.

Can mentoring be teaching? Yes, in over 35 years of developing people, sometimes I have found that during a development session, teaching is the most appropriate method. The client can best be helped by learning through teaching. It seems that mentoring can include teaching. Most of the population can recall at least one teacher who was a great mentor. Perhaps teaching and mentoring are either hugely overlapping, or even inextricably connected.

Can mentoring be training? That question begs a further question: what is the difference between teaching and training? Is teaching more theory based, and training more focused on skill? Do we use the word teaching in organisations? Generally not. Does that mean that we don’t teach theory in the workplace? Quite the contrary; we do: both teaching and training take place. Why then do we refer to development in that context as training? Is it that we perceive teaching is for children and training is for adults? 

If so, you can see one of the reasons we have such confusion in the field of development over definitions: we choose a term, not to convey what something is, but to put a different spin on the same process. Why? To make it more acceptable to end users. Mentoring can be teaching and or training, or at least it can be conducted using training and or teaching techniques.

Can mentoring be counselling? Here we run into the same definition problems. We are actually asking: can one ill-defined process, be another ill-defined process? Attempting to answer: counselling, is loosely speaking, a process to help a person solve a problem. Can mentoring be used to help someone solve a problem? Yes, in fact, the idea that a mentor wouldn’t be involved in helping their charge to solve problems is quite absurd. Why? Development is in large part about learning to solve problems. Mentoring, it seems, by necessity includes as least an element of counselling.

Can mentoring be advising? It seems inconceivable that if a mentee was about to make a damaging mistake, that a well-intentioned mentor wouldn’t advise on a more appropriate course of action. You might, reasonably think: ‘Surely in some development contexts, it is beneficial to let someone make a mistake, to not advise, so that they can develop from the insight that follows?’ Yes, you would be right. A competent mentor would prevent a damaging mistake, yet allow a mistake that would provide a life-changing, positive, learning experience. Isn’t it wise to let the person making the mistake, to make it in a safe and controlled space, where they could learn from it? Mentoring seems to include elements of advising, and, deliberately ‘not’ advising.

Can mentoring be coaching? Here we are in seriously deep water. Neither coaching nor mentoring have agreed definitions. How then can we answer that question? Here is working definition; it is a definition by contrast, that I created over 30 years ago: a mentor is someone from whom you learn; a coach is someone with whom you learn.

Mentoring, using this definition (hundreds of other definitions are available), is a process of imparting knowledge or skill. Coaching, by contrast, is more of a joint endeavour. A mentoring dispenses, a coach facilitates. 

Would an effective mentor use coaching skills? Yes, if that is the most appropriate way to help the mentee. Would a mentor avoid using coaching skills to help someone, if the mentor had those skills and they could develop the person by using their coaching skills? That seems both unlikely, and unwise. Mentoring, it seems, can be conducted using coaching skills, too.

Can someone be a mentor without any personal contact with a mentee? Most of us have real-life mentors that we have never met. Who are yours? For me, Nelson Mandela, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa… Even without meeting such amazing people they can act as mentors to us. Even people who lived centuries ago can be mentors to us today. Who are yours?

What then differentiates mentoring from any of the others on the long list of development skills?  Very little, if anything. The differences may not be based on practical differences, but on superficialities: spin, semantics, and word choice preference.

In answering the question, how does mentoring work, we might as well ask the more general question: how does developing others work? Here are some general principles: involvement, engagement, empowerment, and feedback. 

What are mentoring’s success factors? Probably the same as for teaching, training, counselling, coaching… That is, a strong rapport must be in place along with great development skills. From the mentor, there needs to be encouragement and reassurance, and a strong expectation of a positive outcome. The expectations of mentors are good predictors of the outcomes of their mentees. People live up to the expectations of their developers.

How is mentoring is conducted? As we have seen above, mentoring seems to comprise of many development skills, and can be conducted using any of the development methods listed. 

Here is one observation to finish: it could be that the techniques used in mentoring play a secondary role to the quality of the rapport, and the strength of the mentor’s positive expectations for the person they are mentoring. That is not to say that techniques are irrelevant, just that rapport and positive expectations have a bigger impact on outcomes, than other factors in successful mentoring.


Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.

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