THE BIGGEST COGS IN THE MACHINE CANNOT TURN WITHOUT THE SMALLEST. THE PHRASE “SOFT SKILLS” IS RESIGNED TO THE BIN MARKED “DEROGATORY” – AND WORDS LIKE “ACCEPTANCE” AND “TOLERANCE” SUDDENLY BORDER ON VICTORIAN-GRADE POMPOSITY. SO, CAN REVERSE MENTORING PLAY AN IMPACTFUL ROLE IN THE CREATION OF THIS NEW ERA OF WORK AND RIGHT THE WRONGS FROM THE PAST, THAT WERE LARGELY CAUSED BY IGNORANCE AND AMBIVALENCE? AS WITH EVERYTHING, IT COMES WITH CAVEATS AND POTENTIAL PITFALLS. THE NOTION OF A SENIOR LEADER ON A SEVENFIGURE SALARY, SPENDING THE MORNING WITH AN EMPLOYEE ON THE BASIC LIVING WAGE, HAS ALL THE POTENTIAL FOR CYNICISM.
Growing and maintaining effective leadership is a rising challenge, in the face of significant change in the world of work. Leaders need to be more than technically experienced, they now have to be connected, emotionally intelligent and have the relationship skills to bring people together behind a purpose. They need to be able to navigate organisational tiers, manage the needs of different generations in the workplace and multiple expectations. This is a big ask and one where reverse mentoring can step up.
The 2020’s have already bought significant workplace changes in many industries, work from home and hybrid work are much more common, wellbeing is rightly higher up the agenda, and people – both leaders and workforce, are perhaps less agile than they were prior to COVID -19. HR leaders are faced with the ongoing challenge of growing (and maintaining), effective leadership across their organisations. Leaders need to be connected, emotionally intelligent, and have the relationship skills to bring people together behind a purpose. They need to be able to navigate organisational tiers, the needs of different generations in the workplace, and manage multiple expectations. This is a big ask and one where reverse mentoring can help. One of the biggest challenges, especially for larger organisations, is the reality gap at different organisational levels. This is not just a difference between rhetoric and perception, it is genuinely different experiences, different pressures and different priorities, each as valid as the next, yet each contributing to the reality gap experienced by many. Even small businesses and teams within larger organisations can experience this, as soon as people start to become segregated by roles or hierarchy, the potential exists for reality gaps to form. The reality we each experience is largely influenced by what’s going on in our own heads, conscious or unconscious. The quality of our thinking directly impacts the way we experience our lives and in this instance our work. In order to process the amount of information we are bombarded with, we all create mental models – our own internal ‘map of the world’ – through which we filter information, in order to first make sense of what we experience and second, decide how to act.
One of the challenges is that much of this happens at an unconscious level, we instinctively react or act. These models are borne out of our beliefs, values and experiences. Essentially, they are the patterns our brain creates in order to reduce its load and, when faced with incomplete information, we fill in the blanks and make up a narrative. We often model through confirmation bias, looking to prove what we already think we know. Even in the face of solid evidence, people refuse to shift their views and or behaviour. On the one hand, this helps us make decisions quickly, but on the other hand, it keeps us stuck, can create blind spots and has the potential to further deepen the reality gap between tiers in the organisation. The impact of these gaps is perhaps most evident in how information moves through the organisation. Most businesses have at least three tiers, those ‘on the ground’, middle management and senior leadership. Each tier filters information up and down the organisation through this predetermined hierarchy, interpreting it through their experiences, biases and realities. By the time thoughts and realities on the ground reach senior leadership, the message could be quite different and can be lost in translation.
There are many ways to reduce the drift in the message as information moves around our workplaces and perhaps one of the most powerful is reverse mentorship. Its great power is that it enables senior leaders to gain lived experience of how it is on the ground, to share the realities faced by more junior staff and for those people to share their expertise with more senior colleagues. Turning the tables in this instance builds connection, trust and inclusivity, as well as organisational intelligence. It helps leaders – the mentees in this case – to stay current, as well as in touch with what their teams and their clients both want and need. Reverse mentoring helps junior staff, the mentors, to feel valued and share their expertise. It also helps to build workforce agency and critically, helps people to influence the workplace they want to be part of or lead in the future. Like many evolving practices, it often lies with HR leaders to ensure these systems are set up for success, with clear purpose and realistic expectations and outcomes. Culture and environment are key, so some preliminary work around roles and boundaries – as well as ensuring all parties are committed – will make it much more likely to succeed.
There needs to be enough trust in the existing culture to build mentor-mentee relationships, so it’s worth starting with senior management, to ensure they are open to learning from people who are more junior, probably younger and potentially perceived as less experienced. Consider what this group needs to ensure they understand the value and boundaries of the relationships and define the programme’s purpose very clearly, mindful that there is no one right answer. It may be necessary to increase organisational connectedness, through a better understanding of each other’s realities, it might also require upskilling seniors in current technology, to bridge generational disconnects and understand workforce needs. It’s critical all people involved know what the scheme is for, so ensure mentors and mentees have written agreements that include people specific goals, expectations and timelines. There also needs to be a pragmatic acceptance about what constitutes honest and constructive communication and how and where the mentor can gain support if needed. Psychological safety is paramount for the mentor and mentee. In matching mentors and mentees, relationships need chemistry and whilst enabling people to self-select is ideal, recognising the potential power imbalance is also important. Critically, don’t force people to work together, support mentors in the process and capture and share learning – not at a personal level necessarily – but ensure themes and insights translate into organisational wisdom and change if needed. Relationships are what makes organisations tick and so if we can find ways to be more connected, to share information and experiences without them becoming lost in the tiers of organisational reality, then we can start to build belonging across our workplaces.
Reverse mentoring creates safe mutually beneficial relationships with a clear purpose. They give more junior people an opportunity to share their expertise, their versions of reality and their hopes for the future. It enables leaders to learn skills and translate these experiences into plans/policies that shape their organisations and teams so that they are fit for both the future workforce and the clients they serve.
Finally, a last word on generations in the workplace, leaders often belong to a different generational group than those they lead, if leadership is to be successful and we are going to build workforces fit for the future, we have to be making the translation between what is good and working and what might need retiring. The way we work and lead is rightly evolving. Gen Z workers and the alphas coming into our workplaces not only work differently, but have different expectations and are more digitally selfcontained, which in many ways gives them more freedom. They are the leaders of the future, those of us who have been around the block a few more times need to be listening, learning and acting on the information we gain from walking with them, experiencing the world through their eyes.
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