how can I back out of a mentoring relationship?

A reader writes:

I’m hoping you can help me with how to tail off a coaching situation. I’ve been working with someone for a year now; her supervisor doesn’t have listening or development skills, and they don’t get along because of frustration on both sides anyway.

It’s not a formal coaching relationship at all. She was clearly having problems communicating with her boss–and her boss with her–and I said, hey, I’m willing to work with you to figure out some ways to improve that relationship. We decided to meet weekly over lunch and during the first meeting, when I asked questions about the nature of their interactions, it became obvious that her boss was frustrated with everything about her work–quantity and quality. In asking her for more detail, it became glaringly obvious that her job skills were really lacking, and her boss just doesn’t have the managerial skills to help her build a skillset and work approach that would work for her.

I am used to mentoring/coaching relationships that discuss life experience, professional experience, advancement, life-juggling, networking, etc. Having to teach someone how to build and use a basic to-do list, mind details, prioritize (which I realize isn’t automatic–but the nature of this person’s job basically does the prioritization for her–it’s more about how to stop procrastinating), rebuild relationships and credibility with people after poor performance, recognize the difference between kicking up a dustcloud of effort and actually performing–on a weekly basis, which is how often we were meeting–is draining.

We last met three weeks ago, and based on what I’ve come to know about her, I had an a-ha! moment about a basic approach to her job that I thought might work for her. We discussed it at length and worked out some bulleted steps and reminder systems that I hoped would start to retrain her brain. Over the next week or so, she pinged me occasionally to rave about how it was helping–that’s tailed off a bit now, and I’ve been busy, so I haven’t checked in much.

I told her that she needed to work with this new approach at the front of her mind for a month, and then we’d talk about her impressions of how it was working for her and make any tweaks that might be necessary. That will be next week. I’m fully committed to that check-in and the tweaks, if any are needed, but after that, I am completely out of ideas about how to help any further. I’ve kept my boss updated–he’s the one with ultimate hire/fire/PIP/performance review authority over her, and she meets with him monthly as well–and we agree that at a baseline level, she’s barely meeting expectations and there’s no real reason to terminate her (the boss has seen some small improvements, which is heartening).

So, after all that, my real question is, how do I tail this off without sounding like I’m cutting bait? (I have suggested, bluntly and more than once, that she really think hard about whether she feels this job is a good fit for her.) I’m fine with check-ins, but I am all out of ideas for any further growth and basic skills I can impart. At this point, it really is up to her to use what we’ve talked about, and I will tell her so. Beyond being a sounding board, there’s nothing more I can offer, and she’s got to start learning how to assess and direct her own performance on her own–the dependency on me doesn’t help her grow. How can I convey that in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m giving up on her?

I suppose that a “okay, I’m really out of bandwidth here and I think we’ve talked about a lot of stuff over the last year–how about monthly check-ins from here out” approach might work. I just don’t want her to feel like I’m throwing up my hands.

Yeah, this isn’t really your problem to solve. It’s great that you’ve tried, and you’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how to help her, but you’ve been meeting weekly for a year and it’s more than reasonable to decide that you’re at a point of diminishing returns. And you know, this happens even with really strong mentees — you eventually reach a point where it makes sense to scale back and have meetings be ad hoc rather than so regularly scheduled.

So the message here isn’t “you suck and I can’t try to salvage you anymore.” It’s “we’ve done some intensive work and we’re at a different stage now, so I’m going to back off.” I think you’re probably worried that it’s going to come across as the former because that’s closer to how you feel, but the latter is a completely reasonable message to deliver.

I’d say something like this to her: “Now that we’ve had some pretty intensive conversations about this stuff, why don’t you try out the things we’ve talked about and see how they go? Let’s switch from meeting every week to just checking in occasionally — I’ll leave it up to you to reach out when you have something specific you want to talk over.”

If you think she’s going to resist this, you could throw in something about not having as much time because of your core responsibilities, but still wanting to be available to her for a resource now and then … but either way, there’s no reason to feel guilty about delivering this message. You’re not even cutting off all contact; you’re just decreasing it to something that makes more sense now.

Also: While you sound awesome and I can see why your manager would be excited to have you helping out with this situation, the work you’ve described doing with this coworker sounds like less like mentoring and more like intensive remedial coaching. Your boss should have been questioning all along whether it makes sense to invest that kind of time in someone who isn’t performing well at some pretty fundamental things, and also whether it’s the best use of your time, in particular, given the other priorities I assume you have.

And that leads me to this: Combined with your boss’s willingness to keep someone who took so much effort just to get up to “barely meeting expectations,” I wonder if he just doesn’t want to do the hard work of actually addressing whether or not this is the right fit for your coworker … and has been using your willingness to help as a way to avoid that. If that’s the case, it’s really in the organization’s best interest for you to pull back so he’s more forced to deal with the fit issue.

Either way, I hope you’re getting appropriate recognition for going above and beyond here — from both your coworker and your company.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. John*

    I’m a big fan of Miss Manners. I love her advice on ending dinner interminable dinner parties, and that applies here. Essentially, the host should rise to his or her feet and declare how lovely it’s been to have everyone. “Let me get your coats.” Then lead them to the door. Done in the right spirit, no one should take offense.

    OP, you’ve done your duty. Now you can put on a genuine smile, rise to your feet and tell your mentee how wonderful it has been to work with her and — leading her toward the door at this point — you just know that if she really internalizes and follows the guidance you gave her, things will improve.

    Don’t forget to wave goodnight.

    1. PPK*

      This reminds me of the mid-west (perhaps localized to MN), “Well, I suppose.” To use correctly, one sort of sort of draws out the “Weeeeell, I suppose” and then stands up. This phrase really means, “It’s been quite lovely, but sadly it time for me/us to depart.” Answering “Yep” is optional.

      This may or may not be followed by a long good bye the door (house or car).

      1. ExceptionToTheRule*

        In my family, you’ll need to “I suppose” two or three times. Each properly followed by a “Yep, gotta (long drive, early morning, check the hogs before bed).”

      2. Leslie Yep*

        Literally laughed out loud at this. I grew up in Minnesota and can firmly attest to the “Well, I suppose,” change locations, continue conversation, end conversation with “Well, I suppose,” change locations, continue conversation, end conversation with “Well, I suppose” cycle. My significant other is from the East Coast and the first time he saw this happen he was very alarmed.

      3. Jessica (the celt)*

        Definitely not localized to MN (although I currently live here), because I grew up in West Central IL and it was used there. It is still used with friends and family back home via phone. ;) I heard my dad’s voice immediately as I read your comment. The other answer in response is, “All righty.” Or if the “Weeelll, I suppose” doesn’t get the affirmative in response, you can follow it up with further “I suppose”s and eventually end with “All righty then. I’ll be seein’ ya later?” (That’s the “big hint” that you’ve over-stayed…)

    2. JC*

      Requesting Miss Manners from the library right now based on this comment. I’ve heard how awesome she is before, but this really illustrates it!

      1. A Bug!*

        Her advice columns are a pleasure to read. Several news sites have deep archives of these.

        She suffers no fools, nor the aggressively punctilious.

    3. Jen in RO*

      Maybe it’s cultural, but to me this approach would be very rude. Then again, I come from a country/geographical area where the goal of every hostess is to stuff her guests until they can’t move anymore and trying to usher them out is unthinkable. (I’m assuming it’s cultural because my American friend dealt with quite a lot of culture shock when she moved to Eastern Europe, and the customs of hospitality were a big reason. For example, there is a whole ritual to offering food. The host asks, you refuse, the host asks again, now it’s maybe OK to accept, then the host asks the third time and you “give up” and take the cookie. They’re not being pushy, it’s just how things work around here, and taking the cookie on the first “try” would be slightly rude with people you just met. With friends a lot of there “rules” are irrelevant, of course.)

      1. John*

        You don’t owe your guests the ability to turn the evening into something you never intended it to be — a sit-in, at times — because they want to.

        You have to feel confident in yourself. You set out to provide an enjoyable evening with good food and, once it has run its course, you should feel good about bringing it to an end. It’s all in how you do it.

        Dinner guests should not hold you hostage! They are the rude ones if they don’t pick up on social cues.

        By the way, people need to understand that “More coffee?” means “Time to go.” They also need to understand that when you ask them in the first place if they want coffee they should listen to how it is asked. If the question is, “Would anyone like coffee?” it means they are trying to bring the evening to an end. A sincere offer would be, “I’m putting on a put of coffee. How many would like some?”

  2. jmkenrick*

    Just remember. Even Jack Donaghy had to wrap it up with Liz at some point. No one can be constantly producing mentee results forever. Even someone who was voted “most” at Princeton.

  3. Mena*

    It is seeming that you’ve crossed a line somewhere … when did you begin thinking for her because she isn’t thinking for herself? Yes she is doing her job but are you the thinking behind every step of the way? You’ve made an admirable investment in time and it is time to say “my other business and personal commitments don’t allow me to continue.”

    1. Jessa*

      That and also, “It’s time for you to put this into practise on your own. Let’s get together in 3 months (or a reasonable amount of time OUT there in the future.)” You probably have to schedule a few more appointments before you can go totally unscheduled with her. But at some point she really DOES have to show she can do this without being handheld. And if you’re careful you can probably get that across without it being “OMG I don’t want to spend more time on this.”

      I also think you need buy in from the boss that “look, she needs to try this, but we need to move on if she totally fails, it can’t be me if you want to do a second round of coaching, because I’ve given her everything I have. Maybe someone else has a style better suited to her, if you don’t want to let her go.”

  4. A Bug!*

    That sounds like a sucky situation. It sounds like you like your mentee on a personal level, which makes it especially hard to terminate the mentoring relationship.

    I hope you’re able to wrap it up without any overreaction on your coworker’s part. And, if she does overreact, or blame you for any consequences she sees for her poor performance later, I hope you do not let her make you feel like you failed her.

    By the way, if your coworker’s problem is primarily procrastination/inability to prioritize/lack of organization – if she understands and cares about her job and is capable of doing it properly – then one last thing you may wish to do for her is suggest she see a doctor to rule out ADHD and/or obtain a referral to a behavioral therapist.

  5. GS*

    If meeting weekly for a year hasn’t paid dividends what makes you think her current supervisor doesn’t have the skills to manage her? Sounds like the current supervisor came to the conclusion you just came to a year ago and perhaps she is performing well enough to keep her job. Many managers don’t have the time to meet over lunch weekly with one staff member to discuss life juggling or life coaching. This sounds like an employee that might not be worth investing a lot of time in. The best piece of advice for her is to move on.

  6. sunny-dee*

    I wonder if there is some reason her supervisor or your manager haven’t just let her go. When I have seen people struggle at that incredibly fundamental level it was either a) a relative of someone in authority, b) someone in a desirable group (minority, woman, etc), c) a pet experiment as part of restructuring or “shaking up” a team, or d) a manager who is incapable of admitting he made a bad hire. It never works. I cannot tell how demoralizing it is for the rest of the team to see one person get totally carried and petted and held to a different standard. Outside of a job work program or maybe an intern (maybe), I can’t imagine someone being given that much intensive training for so little result and being retained.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Agreed, but so often people just don’t want to do the dirty work of firing someone so if they can see any tiny reason not to do it, they don’t. It is demoralizing and a sign of bad management for sure.

  7. Ruffingit*

    Not germane necessarily to this posting, but when I read things like this, I wonder how these people are getting and keeping jobs. It’s rough out there finding a job and you read about people like this who apparently can’t breathe without someone reminding them to inhale and exhale and yet, they get and stay employed.

    And that concludes my bitter rant for today ;)

    1. anon*

      Well, I think we see here how *this* particular person is keeping their job. I was thinking more about how this person would be able to “move on” if they’re performing minimally at their current position–maybe they have skills that aren’t being tapped at this job?

    2. Windchime*

      I always wonder that, too. At every job, there are people who perform at different levels; there are a few “stars”, many people who are in the great or super good category, some slackers, and there always seems to be those few who really either don’t seem to care or just don’t get it. I always wonder how they manage to keep their jobs; I would constantly be worrying that I was about to get canned.

  8. OP for this Q*

    In that my original email was so long, it’s hard to believe I didn’t clarify some things! First, my boss is truly a good manager, and is monitoring the person’s performance. He meets with her monthly to assess it. If she needs to go, he will let her go. Ultimately, she is meeting expectations, and has made improvements, and if that changes he will cut the cord with no problem. He’s the furthest thing from weak there is, though the portrayal here may make him sound like it.

    The person’s performance is on the right side of the “adequate” line, and I felt that with some guidance, she could grow into a good performer. I was taken by surprise by the level of coaching she actually needed–as Alison points out, it’s intense. I do it on my own time–we usually meet over lunch or after work–and I just volunteered because I like her and misread her struggles as a communication problem with her direct supervisor. It’s true that I’ve become fond of her as a person and really would love to see her succeed.

    In thinking about it since I sent the email to Alison, I’ve come to recognize that at least part of my question came from a place of disappointment, and my concern was about how to tail off the coaching without communicating that. It’s well beyond clear (chuckle…I’ve ignored the ringing Clue Phone for a long time) that she’s not going to be capable of succeeding in this job–just surviving. She doesn’t blame me for anything, and is incredibly grateful for the time I’ve invested. As of now, we’re going to meet monthly to touch base, and I’m just going to keep reminding her of the strategies we developed. She’s getting help for anxiety, and I will suggest an adult ADHD screening as well.

    My boss is extremely appreciative of my efforts, and I think it was a factor in my recent promotion, although that’s not why I did it. I just wanted to help.

    (And a side note…I loved the “weeeeelllll, I suppose…” which was how one of my dearest friends used to ease himself out of his chair after finishing his last drink. He died much too young last April, but reading those comments, I could hear his voice saying it, and it made me smile. Thanks for that.)

    1. Ruffingit*

      Thanks for the extra info OP! I’m curious as to the woman’s mindset. Is she happy to just be surviving in the job or does she think she can do better? I ask this because I think of myself and how I would feel if I needed this much help just to survive in a job. I’m thinking I would feel rather demoralized because I wasn’t really capable of doing the job to high standards and I’d probably accept that and start looking hard for something more in line with my capabilities. I’m just curious as to what her mindset is in that it’s now very clear she will not succeed, but rather just survive? Does she realize that?

      1. Jen in RO*

        Maybe the woman feels that, if she can’t even succeed at this job, *with* coaching, she would surely fail at another, so she’s afraid to try?

      2. OP for this Q*

        She thinks she can do better, but was stymied as to how, as well as why she wasn’t. Over time she’s learned more about her weaknesses with the basics, and one of the things that has been really rewarding was her willingness to listen and learn. In terms of fit and whether she’s looking, I have been blunt about her needing to really look hard at whether this is the job for her, but she feels trapped by family circumstances…and a fear of failure. Those are things I can’t coach. She has a great attitude of always wanting to improve and do better, which has made the effort worth it. I just wish it were paying off better and faster for her.

    2. Lillie Lane*

      “She’s getting help for anxiety, and I will suggest an adult ADHD screening as well. ”

      Before you wrote this, anxiety was exactly what I was thinking as the root your mentee’s problem. Are you 100% sure she doesn’t have the skills to do her job now, or is something else holding her back? At my last position, I was perfectly capable of doing my job….but I was so paralyzed with anxiety that I just couldn’t pull myself together. The way you describe her sounded so familiar.

    3. Jamie*

      I personally wouldn’t suggest any kind of specific screening for anyone outside of an intimate or very close familial relationship. Even if they are waving every red flag in the world, I just don’t think it’s the place of someone in a casual or working relationship.

      She’s seeing someone for her anxiety, whatever screenings she may need is something best discussed between her and her doctor or therapist.

      Just my opinion, I don’t even see ADHD as a negative thing and I would be extremely offended by that – because many people do and you’re suggesting she see a psychiatrist. I don’t see how that ends well.

      1. Jen in RO*

        Offtopic, but I really liked your recent comments about ADHD. I might have a mild form (ADHD is not really a “thing” here, so I don’t think I could even get tested as an adult, I’m only going by the Wikipedia description), but I never felt that it’s an excuse. I’m absolutely slacking off right now (it’s almost noon and I’ve barely started working!), but I can’t blame that on anything except myself, for not finding ways to focus better. I consider myself to be easily distracted and I think I actually prefer not having an official diagnosis that would turn it into a big thing.
        (I’m not trying to start a flame war, I’m just talking about my personal experience with some behaviors that are also found in ADHD.)

        1. Jamie*

          Totally agree on not needing a diagnosis – I resent that part of it actually, just necessary here if you want meds because they won’t perscribe stimulants without it.

          But yeah, I’m not a fan of labels, but since other people have a stigma with that label I like to refute it when I can.

      2. OP for this Q*

        (I’m glad to see you back in the comments, Jamie! I hope you’re recovering well.)

        Ordinarily, I’d agree–but over time and through our conversations she has sought and welcomed insights into where her obstacles may lie. I don’t see ADHD as negative either–but in her case, I thought it might be possible that some of the symptoms might be part of her roadblocks in this particular situation. I haven’t specifically brought it up yet (for exactly the reasons you mention) and will continue to tread lightly there–as you point out, it’s better left to a trained professional. When she mentions counseling, though, which she does on occasion, I may ask if she’s been screened.

        1. Laura*

          OP – I think asking her if she’s been screened for ADHD *if* she brings up anxiety and her treatment is likely the best way to go, if you truly think ADHD might be part of the problem here.

          I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 25 (I’m 30 now). I’d always done well in school, went to a top university and got a masters degree as well – and then suddenly, in the working world, I found that I couldn’t cut it and was having all sorts of performance problems that were *so* frustrating because I knew *how* to do my job, I just, for some reason, couldn’t actually do it. My anxiety was through the roof. So having a name for what was going on helped me look into better ways to compensate and better jobs for someone with an ADHD person’s unique set of strengths and weaknesses (as others have said, it’s not necessarily a weakness – but it certainly can be in certain jobs).

          That said, I’m not sure how I would have felt if a mentor/colleague had approached me to suggest I get screened before I was diagnosed. I bought into the negative stereotypes about ADHD as much as anyone, and your coworker might, too.

          Before saying anything, if I were you I would listen for signs that she is feeling bad about herself for struggling so much in this job – is she beating herself up about mistakes, calling herself lazy or stupid, etc.? Because if that’s the case, I can almost guarantee that she’ll welcome a new perspective saying that maybe this isn’t just about her lack of willpower or whatever, maybe it’s about her brain working a little differently than others.

          That said, tread carefully for all the reasons others have mentioned. Good luck.

        2. Jamie*

          Since she’s mentioned counseling to you that does make it somewhat different – I didn’t take that into account when I tossed off a response this morning.

          Since she’s mentioned other issues to you, if you can do it in a non-judgy FIX THIS kind of way it’s possible.

          One interesting thing about ADD – and I’m speaking from experience and from knowing others who had the exact same thing…if you don’t deal with the ADD it increases anxiety because if you have ADD and have an over achiever temperament you’re clenched all the time trying to stay focused, fight distractions, try to remember if you’re forgetting anything…however it manifests for you. If you deal with the ADD (either meds or setting up routines, or both) you don’t spend time and mental energy managing that so you can direct your energy where it needs to go.

          Oh – and last thing I’ll say about ADD that some people don’t realize – you can be a workaholic and highly productive even with untreated ADD…because distractions aren’t always external and frivolous. Distractions can be other work things, multitasking to the point of being less efficient. I just don’t want to create the impression that if I forget my adderall in the morning that I’m leaping up from my desk every 10 minutes chasing butterflies or marveling at a shiny object – or looking for someone with whom to chat – I am not. It’s just a matter of having to work harder to block off time for one thing and not immediately respond to every email and cry for help…so things still get done and get done well – just with a little more internal effort than otherwise.

          1. Heather*

            My distractions are mostly in my mind too. One thing reminds me of another, which reminds me of something else, and before I know it I’ve totally forgotten what the first thing was. The other day I was trying to tell my husband a story and I interrupted myself about 5 times because I thought of something else I wanted to tell him. After about the 5th time I changed subjects on the fly, he yelled “SQUIRREL!”… and I looked.

            So yeah, I literally have the attention span of Dug the Dog when I’m unmedicated.

  9. tcookson*

    Maybe a little off-topic, but has anyone ever taken the StrengthsQuest assessment? Reading OP’s letter about how she has patiently nurtured this mentee for the past year made me think she must have the Developer strength in spades.

    From StrengthsQuest re: the Developer strength: People who are especially talented in the Developer theme recognize and cultivate the potential in others. They spot the signs of each small improvement and derive satisfaction from these improvements.

  10. Another Option-Karin*

    There is some great advice already here. It seems as if what might have started off with the idea of mentoring really became an exercise in training someone in place of their own manager doing the job. One suggestion is to suggest that she find an external coach (not a mentor) to work with-sometimes working with an internal person simply keeps the low performer focussed on clinging on to the job at that workplace when they would be better off going somewhere else or getting some perspective from someone who is purely objective. In other words, not focussed on helping them stay in the job they are barely making it in but looking big picture and asking her to consider other ideas.

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