update: how can I back out of a mentoring relationship?

Remember the reader wondering about how to back out of a mentoring relationship that was more like intensive remedial coaching? Here’s the update.

I’m truly grateful for your help and that of the readers. The blog and your advice provide a tremendous opportunity to both try on others’ shoes and step out of my own, if that makes any sense. As with the problem I originally wrote about, sometimes, especially when you’re personally involved, it’s difficult to step back and get some objective distance; ultimately, that’s the problem I was having with my situation.

I’m not sure I have much of an update when it comes to the person I was mentoring. She seems to take one step forward and then suddenly it comes to light that she’s taken a step and a quarter back. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that’s progress, considering that it used to be one step forward and three steps back, but…it’s still not overall improvement.

Based on the comments and your advice, I did work to think more objectively about my role in all of this; I placed myself in it, and I did allow my liking for the person to influence the amount of effort I put into trying to help her. I don’t regret it, because out of that I’ve learned several things about myself as a manager and a mentor–for one thing, I am more more comfortable as a coach than as a mentor. I am very good at identifying specific paths for improvement and take huge satisfaction out of watching someone improve. That said, I now recognize that I need to define specific objectives for a coaching relationship (vs. a mentoring one–the goals are different for those two roles) so that it’s not so amorphous and enveloping. I need to acknowledge to myself when there’s not much left to be gained by a continued time investment so that I can be comfortable with changing or ending it.

The person is still with the organization, but is under scrutiny; I don’t know if she’s on a PIP but I think it’s getting close. The organization overall is undergoing a slight reorg that won’t really trickle down this far, but it’s an opportunity for my boss to change roles within that person’s group to try to capitalize on her strengths. (Another thing that the advice from you and the commenters made me think about is that my boss may have a bit of a problem with cutting dead weight. It wouldn’t be hard in this climate to find someone who could kick serious ass in that role. I’m not sure where his hesitation comes from, other than that he’s fond of this person too and really wants to see her succeed.)

Along with the personal growth out of the experience, I did get kudos at review time for my efforts. Others in the organization, both within my group and outside it, have noticed those efforts as well; sadly, because this person has poisoned the stew so badly with her ineptness, I usually get those remarks in the context of “I know how hard you worked with her; too bad she just doesn’t get it.” That’s a shame, but it’s not untrue, either.

Ultimately, I took a lot away from the experience and appreciated the push to be more reflective about things. Thanks to you and the commenters for your advice and support–it’s a tremendous community.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Sascha*

    So what are the differences between coaching and mentoring? I’m curious about the distinction, as I would have thought they were the same.

    1. The IT Manager*

      I think you mentor a person, long term for their career development and progression as a whole. It’s whole person development.

      You coach a person for a shorter term for a specific task. Like the LW spoke about “identifying specific paths for improvement” and helping the individual accomplish that one task.

    2. Heather*

      I was literally just working on my professional organization’s mentoring manual.

      “A mentoring partnership will be a mix of mentoring and coaching, especially when the relationship is comprised of a new and a seasoned information professional.
      Mentoring and coaching share many of the same characteristics:
      • a mutually respectful, trusting relationship where open conversations are encouraged
      • both learning processes
      • both mutual interest in positive outcome, especially for the partner, who has brought specific goals and outcomes to the relationship
      But they’re not the same.
      Coaching relationships DO NOT usually include mentoring, but mentoring relationships often include coaching.
      Mentoring will be a balancing act between coaching and mentoring. Coaching will be a vital part of the mentoring partnership—a mentee will need practical advice to deal with what’s happening in the now before they can really focus on the future and long-term career goals.”

      1. Heather*

        “• Coaching = improved performance
        o Focuses primarily on building performance/ a performance issue or need
         I have more or different skills
         I help you
         Structure negotiated
         Generally management responsibility, but may be initiated by person being coached
         Requires skill in giving and receiving feedback
        • Mentoring = increased perspective
        o More holistic in approach towards development of another’s career aspirations whether short or long term
        o Involves transfer of knowledge, including tacit knowledge, discussions about core values and organizational culture, and exposure to networks to expand another’s sphere of relationships”

  2. Artemesia*

    I don’t understand bosses who allow a seriously underperforming person to continue especially when they are a newish hire. Of course, we all want to see people succeed and should provide them support — but someone who goes one step forward and 2 or 3 back constantly and isn’t catching on? That person needs to be let go fairly early on so that a competent person can be hired. It is one thing to bear with a person who has been a good employee but has some issues weighing them down temporarily e.g. health or family crises. They have built the capital to expect some forbearance. But a new hire who can’t cut it really should be let go before they bring down morale and cramp productivity.

    1. OhNo*

      This is exactly what I was thinking. It sounds very much like the manager is so emotionally invested in this person (because they really like her, or want to avoid conflict, or who knows why) that they just can’t bear to fire her. I’ve always found that idea weird – if I were the employee in question, I would almost want to be fired, rather than stick it out with a company where everyone talks about what a dead weight I am and knows I’m useless and the only reason I’m still around is because the boss is too nice to fire me. That sounds like a nightmare.

      At this point, though, it does sound like the company and the OP in particular has invested so much time and effort into this person that it would almost be a waste not to give her one last chance to do things right. Here’s hoping they put her on a PIP and either she sorts herself out or they finally fire her.

    2. MJH*

      If people like you, you will not be fired nearly as readily as someone who no one likes. I think that’s why these bosses hesitate: they often LIKE the person they’d have to fire. Getting along with coworkers, making sure they like you, is one of the unspoken keys to success, or at least keeping a job (even if you’re not good at it).

      I have NUMEROUS examples of mostly-incompetent people who had great personalities and were extremely popular at work who kept their jobs long beyond what they probably should’ve. And I know others who were good at their jobs but sabotaged themselves by being unfriendly and not well-liked.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes. And it goes along with how important likeability is in hiring.

        Once the required skills/experience is out of the way if often comes down to factoring which candidate you wouldn’t mind spending 8, 10, 12+ hours a day with.

        That’s why it’s so important to be yourself (well, your formal interview self) in interviews…because for me I’d hate to be hired because they liked who I was pretending to me.

        But yes – at work being liked really does matter. It can get you hired, stave of being fired, and get you cut a lot more slack when you need it. It’s more important than it should be, but we deny it at our own peril.

        1. Joey*

          Wasn’t it Chris rock who said something like “people don’t go on dates. They send their representative on dates. The representative who dresses nicer, acts better, acts like they have more money and a better job than they really have.”

    3. Joey*

      People have a tough time ripping off the band aid especially when they see a lot of effort and like the person.

      1. Jamie*

        The effort is key. It’s much harder when people are genuinely trying. If you have to let someone go I’ll take a slacker who leaves nail clippings on the keyboard any day.

    4. De Minimis*

      It’s also bad for the employee–the longer they are in that position, the harder the transition will be when they do finally go–they’ll probably develop bad habits that will cause issues at their next job, and they won’t be able to show future employers any accomplishments or growth.

  3. Not So NewReader*

    It sounds like OP has more of a big picture perspective and that is always helpful.
    This might sound odd, but because you have extracted yourself from the situation, OP, this frees the boss up to start looking at the big picture perspective, too. It might take a little bit for her to adjust her view of the situation. See, before Boss could say “OP, is working on this and it will change.” Now the boss has to rethink that. Now, it looks more like “OP, has given this situation her all and the situation still has not changed. It’s my turn to do something.”

    It remains to be seen if you have a boss that hates to fire OR a boss that just believes in pulling out all the stops before firing. As others have said likability is a factor for many reasons. Yeah, it does murky the waters some what. Hopefully, the boss will arrive at the best decision possible.

  4. OP for this one*

    NSNR, that’s exactly it…the main thing that I took away was that I had to step out of feeling responsible for this person’s success, because…I’m not. Gaining satisfaction out of helping someone improve is one thing, but I had to step back from it to be able to see that intense effort doesn’t always pay off with significant improvement.

    The boss is somewhat constrained by a longstanding corporate culture that is strongly focused on helping people succeed…we’ve managed to prune a lot of dead wood but there are still some notable exceptions.

    Likeability of this person is a huge element of this, and something else that I didn’t touch on in the update but you did, NSNR, is the concept of “borrowing authority” that Alison mentioned a few posts back. In this case, I loaned the person some of my credibility to buy her some time to get her act together, and my “she’s working on things” voucher went at least a little way. Withdrawing that loan is forcing others, including my boss, to reexamine her capabilities and hold her to performance expectations on her own merits, rather than her own plus what people see me helping her with.

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