Discussing expectations right from the start

by Sarah Daubert

Sarah Daubert, Linguist, SIL Cameroon

I received a testimony from someone about a mentoring experience that didn’t go as expected.

“I was mentoring two people who attended a Learning that Lasts workshop. For the next course that we co-taught, I thought I would give them the opportunity to apply what they’d learned. A month before the course, we met for two days and decided on course objectives, modules to include, and who would facilitate which sessions. Each person was responsible to develop or revise the content and activities for their topics.

We did not meet together again to go over the entire curriculum before the course started, from lack of means and time. The results were… uneven, although the course evaluations were all very positive. The more experienced person had indeed developed culturally appropriate content, but the organization of the modules on paper didn’t fit his oral presentation of them. The less experienced person hadn’t had any new topics to develop, but he hadn’t reworked any of the learning activities either, he’d just taken what had been done in the past. Because of my expectations, I was very disappointed. During our staff debrief afterwards, the senior of the two told me that their expectation was that I, as course head, would fully develop the materials and all they would have to do is teach.”

Initial questions for reflection:

  • Have you had an experience similar to this one?
  • How did you navigate it?
  • How would you describe the disconnect between the mentor’s perception of the situation and the two mentees’ understanding of it?
  • What might be the cultural values coming into conflict here?
  • How would you advise the three moving forward?

Anyone who works in a multicultural setting has experienced misunderstandings rooted in unspoken cultural differences. Two people can speak the same language and use the same terms and have very different assumptions about what is meant and what they are expected to do. Researchers such as Sunny Hong, whose paper Cross-Cultural Mentoring is linked on this website (and available in French) point out that mentoring relationships can be complicated or hindered by cross-cultural issues. Hong says:

“to have successful cross-cultural mentoring relationship, cultural differences behind mentoring issues need to be understood.”

The above scenario is an example of what can happen when the mentor and mentee(s) are unaware of the deep differences between what they expect from each other.

Hong draws out the distinctions between mentorship in more individualistic cultures and in more collectivistic cultures.  Broadly speaking, one of the issues that seems to be involved in this situation is the clash between the more egalitarian approach of an individualistic culture, where it is assumed that everyone is at the same “level” and has the same amount of authority to make decisions, and the more hierarchical approach of a collectivist culture, where hierarchy and authority are very important and people defer to the person with the most experience. I have experienced this kind of clash in Cameroon. My teacher friends often have to teach new habits to the students that come to them from national schools, because they have been taught to copy verbatim from their textbooks or the internet. In Europe and the US, plagiarism is a serious offense and we emphasize students’ ability to think for themselves and evaluate what they read so they can decide whether or not they agree. But to paraphrase what one of my friends’ students told her:

“We were taught to copy what the author says because the author is the expert. How can I disagree or evaluate what an expert is telling me?”

This mentality of deferring to the person with the most authority was reflected in the debrief that was described above. The two mentees understood that their role was primarily to do what their mentor, the expert, told them to. Perhaps they thought, like my friends’ student, that it would be presumptuous to try to improve what the course head had decided. Meanwhile, the course head believed that her mentees understood that they were expected to innovate and improve what she had done.

Clear discussion is going to be key to the success of a mentorship relationship between these three. First, I think that the mentor should carefully explore how to keep the communication lines open between her and her mentees. They may perceive a high power distance between them that prevents them from asking all the questions they have. As Eszter pointed out in an earlier post,

“In many of these cultures that operate with high power distance, asking questions from one’s supervisor is not a straight-forward matter.”

On the topic of supervision, I think that the mentor in this situation should make it clear whether she is supervising or mentoring these two co-workers and clearly express to them how those two roles are different. It will probably not work for her to be both supervisor and mentor at the same time.

Lastly, this scenario describes an informal mentoring situation, restricted to one activity. However, there seems to be the potential for co-leading courses in the future and the mentor desires to see her colleagues grow into their roles as co-teachers. Given the situation, it is probably necessary to determine if one or both of the mentees is a good candidate for more formal, long-term mentoring. As Katherine points out in her post about formal and informal mentoring, one of the advantages of formal mentoring would be

“Intentionality with clear time-bound goals and planned meetings – informal mentoring can just drift along, but by formalising it, you make sure things happen.”

There probably isn’t a perfect solution in this scenario. It sounds like there are time and travel constraints involved that make some of the principles of good mentorship difficult to achieve. But even if a more formal mentoring relationship isn’t feasible for these colleagues right now, they could benefit from taking the time to discuss expectations and concrete goals, as well as addressing their unspoken assumptions about how those goals are to be achieved.

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

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