Be careful what you ask…

by Paul Murrell

Paul Murrell, Linguistics Consultant in Training, SIL Central African Republic

“What work would you like to do next year?” I thought our question was a fairly straightforward one, but the stony silence that greeted it suggested otherwise. I was first amused, then bemused and finally completely disorientated as the minutes of silence stretched painfully into an hour and beyond. Determined not to push for an answer or give my own prompts, we sat there in awkward silence until I finally gave in and left the room to collect my thoughts and think through what had gone wrong.

We all know that, like a dash of piment in a chicken stew, a well-timed question in a mentoring relationship can be transformative, but we often forget that when we are working cross-culturally our well-intentioned questions may be communicating unintended or even unhelpful messages. In Congo and the Central African Republic, for example, a question might be used to tease or reprimand. A rhetorical question may be being used to assert authority and issue a command, while a simple question for information could conceal a hidden trap. A translation consultant might get frustrated when their insightful question, “Why did you translate temptation like that?” is met with a flurry of typing and a slightly over-zealous response, “It’s fine, we’ve already changed it.” The same translator might wonder why everything she has done that morning seems to be unsatisfactory, as the stream of questions continues relentlessly. What I mean when I ask a question isn’t necessarily what you understand, so should I even be asking questions at all?

To be honest, it’s hard to imagine an effective mentoring relationship without any questions, but perhaps the key to asking the best questions is taking the time to understand one other and build a relationship of trust. When there is a healthy mutual respect, and good intentions are not only assumed but explicit, a question that could be seen as potentially threatening becomes an opportunity to dig a little deeper, to probe beneath the surface and deal with an issue that could be holding you back. When you trust the surgeon, the scalpel isn’t something to be afraid of, even though it might be painful for a while; you’re going to get better, the problem is going to be dealt with.

So don’t be afraid of questions, but use them carefully. Get to know the culture you’re working in and get to know your mentor/mentee. Maybe begin a session by explaining that when you ask questions you’re not being critical, but that questions are a tool that can help you both grow. Think of alternative ways of asking without using direct questions, and if you need to be a little less blunt, watch an insider to see how it’s done. When you make a mistake and cause offence, like I did, don’t be afraid to apologise and learn from it. After all, mentoring is beneficial for a mentor’s personal growth too, wouldn’t you say?

For reflection:

  • Talk to a friend or colleague about how you feel when someone in authority asks you a question about your work. Share what it is that you find hard, challenging or encouraging.
  • Think about a time when you have asked/been asked a question that was misunderstood. Talk about how you managed to resolve the situation.
  • Next time you meet with your mentee/mentor try to rephrase as many questions as you can using other words. You could use strategies like, “Tell me about your latest piece of work…” or “I’d like to know about how the community responded to last week’s meeting you led…” 
  • A good question is never answered; it is a seed to be planted – John Ciardi. Discuss this quote with two people; somebody you mentor and someone who mentors you. Compare the discussions and draw some conclusions about each relationship. 

Image by Gerd Altman on Pixabay

Matching mentors and mentees

by Dora Carlos

Dora Carlos, Director of Programs, SIL Southern Africa

Some people have had negative experiences in the past in mentoring relationships, which makes them hesitant to sign up for being a mentor or mentee again. However, there are ways to match mentors and mentees well and to support their relationship in a way that makes negative experiences much more unlikely.

In SIL Southern Africa it is the role of the mentoring coordinator to mediate the mentoring relationship. This role could be assumed by a supervisor, too, if there is no mentoring coordinator in the organisation. In my experience, the matching-process can happen in a number of ways:

  • A staff member comes to me as the mentoring coordinator and asks if so and so can be their mentor. I ask them what made them choose that person. If we come to the conclusion that the desired mentor could be a good match, I approach that mentor and ask. So far, I haven’t received a “no” in such a scenario.
  • I have had one mentor who was interested in mentoring a specific mentee. I asked why and then I asked the mentee what he thought about it. That worked well too. 
  • Sometimes I ask a staff member if they are ready to mentor a certain person, because I think the two might be a good match. Reasons might be that I know that the two have a good relationship already; or that they will have a chance to work together closely and to see each other from time to time. This is very important in an organisational unit where we work in 10 different countries, some of which are francophone, others anglophone and lusophone. I will always ask the mentee too before we go ahead with the match. 
  • In one specific case I decided to ask a more advanced consultant-in-training to mentor a newer colleague because they seemed to be a perfect match in terms of personality because their locations were close. This worked out beautifully. I think they are enjoying their relationship immensely and the mentor underlines how much mutual learning is happening. 
  • In a few cases I have asked a mentor from outside our organisational unit. In one case that worked very well because the mentor and the mentee were friends and the mentor was very engaged in the mentoring relationship. In another case, it didn’t work that well because expectations of those involved didn’t match up,  and I didn’t have any leverage, as the mentor was not part of our system. This was some years ago when I hadn’t yet clearly formulated our expectations of mentors and of a mentoring relationship.

Some tips to facilitate the matching process:

  • Our staff know that they will be supported in their mentoring relationship by the mentoring coordinator.
  • The coordinator makes sure that the necessary resources and opportunities to learn and work together are available. This often involves negotiating with partner organisations.
  • Clear guidelines for mentors and mentees are helpful for all parties involved. 
  • Main mentors are responsible for the overall professional development of their mentee but they can be assisted by a couple of session mentors, or competency mentors, if necessary, who offer a variety of practical learning experiences for specific topics. 
  • I recently started to offer Strengths Coaching to our programs staff so that they are more aware of personality differences and can work constructively with them. 
  • In our mentoring program, the responsibility for success doesn’t lie solely with the mentor but also with the mentee and the mentoring coordinator. This takes a lot of pressure off the mentor’s shoulders.

Developing people is a privilege and a calling. It challenges the mentor to grow, too, and is a great way to leave a legacy. Don’t let the past hold you back!

Discussion question:

What strategies do you use for matching mentors and mentees? Leave a comment. We would love to hear from you.

Image by Alexas photos on Pixabay

SIL’s Robust Mentoring Initiative

by Brigitte Nédellec and David Pattison

Brigitte Nédellec, Training Director & David Pattison, Director for Learning and Development, SIL ILS & HR

SIL’s Robust Mentoring Initiative – ebook

Initiative Mentorat robuste – livre électronique

With a vision in mind to create an organisational culture where strong mentoring relationships are the norm within SIL, International Language Services (ILS) and Human Resources (HR) jointly welcome and commend this new electronic booklet about the Robust Mentoring Initiative (version française disponible).

The booklet explains what robust mentoring looks like. It also provides tools for departments, operational units and Areas to think through and implement long-term strategies so that we will grow stronger together as a learning organisation. 

We encourage you to use this booklet in conjunction with other resources you can find on the Mentoring Matters website.

Mentoring, wisdom and the book of Proverbs

by Bill Hampton

Bill Hampton, Director of Resourcing, SIL ILS

Mentoring may not be such a new idea. If you consider the encouragement and teachings contained in the Book of Proverbs, you may be surprised by the parallels between current mentoring thought and the timeless encouragement and instruction found there. Attributed to King Solomon, this ancient book begins, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, King of Israel, for gaining wisdom.” (Proverbs 1: 1, 2, NIV) There are many verses where a father is teaching his son, and many verses that illustrate the need for the encouragement and shaping of others. In fact, the first four chapters of Proverbs contain special narratives focusing on gaining wisdom. Solomon’s words paint a picture of the need for wisdom in all areas of life, as well as in the work space.

Wisdom, in Solomon’s understanding, comes from guided and ongoing reflection on the combination of gained knowledge and life experience. This is surely a picture of mentoring. As a person gains knowledge through learning, and experience through doing, someone who has “been there” before them can impart deeper understanding. They can share past experience in ways that instruct. Through a listening ear, a mentor can encourage discernment, and help their mentee become wise. As Solomon’s picture of wisdom is a combination of life and lessons learned, so mentoring is the opportunity for someone to participate in the life of a willing mentee and help them gain understanding as they reflect together on the mentee’s experiences. These shared discussions help the mentee set more effective long term directions in life and work. That is, after all, a key desire for mentoring: helping the one being mentored understand, set better directions, make more effective decisions, and gain from growing wisdom. Author Timothy Keller writes:

“The way of wisdom is not the way of quick fixes and dramatic turnarounds. It is the way of long training and discipline.”

Keller. God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life. New York: Viking, 2017, p34.

King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Let the wise listen, and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” (Proverbs 1:5, NIV)

Reflection questions:

In both the Book of Proverbs, and in current mentoring literature, the willingness of the one being mentored is crucial to the process. As you reflect on your own experiences in mentoring and being mentored, what experiences support the necessity of a willing mentee?

Gaining wisdom, like effective mentoring, is a long term prospect. How might you help mentees see the value of this process in such a results-driven world? Can you find supporting information in the Book of Proverbs?

Image by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Expériences personnel dans le mentorat au travers des cultures / Personal Experiences in Mentoring Across Cultures

by Joseph Koabike

Joseph Koabike, Translation Consultant, SIL Togo-Benin

We are happy to publish some posts both in English and in French. The English translation of this post is available below. To read in English, please scroll down.

Dans l’exercice d’encadrement en tant que mentor, j’ai eu l’occasion d’accompagner cinq personnes de cultures différentes de celles d’Afrique. Paradoxalement je n’ai pas eu de problème de communication, même lorsque certains étaient mes responsables. Contrairement aux collègues africains où les relations sont allées très loin jusque dans nos familles respectives, les relations avec mes protégés occidentaux sont restées au niveau professionnel. Un des avantages que j’ai retirés du  travail avec les collègues occidentaux, c’est le fait de pouvoir se parler librement. Ils se sentent à l’aise pour poser toutes sortes de questions. Cela m’a toujours rassuré dans mon rôle en tant que formateur des protégés. Et s’ils trouvaient une information dont ils n’étaient pas sûrs que je l’avais reçue, ils me posaient simplement la question. Ce qui m’a permis de chercher l’information qui me manquait ou de rassurer la personne que j’étais effectivement au courant de sa découverte. Cela a renforcé aussi la confiance mutuelle entre nous. Le respect mutuel a été le maître-mot et les conversations, qu’elles aient été initiées par moi ou par eux, ont été fluides et sans préjugés. J’ai appris à valoriser les approches différentes pour l’apprentissage. Il est dangereux de faire des généralisations, mais dans la plupart des cas, les protégés d’autres cultures que celles africaines ont été très réservés sur des questions qui ne relèvent pas strictement du travail. J’ai appris qu’il ne faut jamais trop insister pour que les gens réagissent comme on aurait souhaité selon sa propre culture, mais au contraire respecter ce que le protégé veut ou ce qui le met plus à l’aise.

De la même façon, j’ai appris que la culture ne s’exporte pas mais les connaissances oui. La culture étant un canal de communication, il s’agit de trouver le canal par lequel les parties prenantes se sentent toutes à l’aise. Il me semble que l’humilité et l’honnêteté sont nécessaires pour bâtir une relation de mentorat saine et fructueuse. Je dois néanmoins préciser que les relations avec tous les protégés sont restées bonnes, même si elles ne sont pas allées au-delà de l’aspect professionnel. Ce n’est pas une forme de regret que j’exprime mais la différence dans les approches. J’ai donc apprécié chaque approche à sa juste valeur. Dans tous les cas, je considère le travail de mentor comme une grâce particulière dont on doit être reconnaissant au Seigneur.

English translation:

In my role as mentor, I have had the opportunity to walk alongside five people from non-African cultures. Somewhat paradoxically, even though some of them were my managers I did not experience any communication problems. With my African colleagues, our relationships deepened to the point of including members of our families. In contrast, relationships with my Western mentees have remained at a professional level. One benefit I have discovered when working with Western colleagues is how direct they are. They feel comfortable asking all kinds of questions. This has always given me a sense of reassurance about the role I play in the training of mentees. If during their own research they found a piece of information and were unsure whether I had access to it or not, they would just ask me about it. This gave me a chance to look for the answer to their question or to reassure the person that I was indeed aware of the answer. It has also strengthened mutual trust between us. Mutual respect has been the guiding principle, and the conversations, whether initiated by me or by them, were free-flowing and unbiased. I learned and valued different approaches to learning. It is dangerous to make generalizations, but in most cases, mentees from cultures other than African cultures have been very reserved on issues that are not strictly work-related. I have learned that you should not insist that people react as you would have expected within your own culture, but instead respect the wishes of the mentee and consider how you can make him or her more comfortable.

In a similar way, I have learned that culture cannot be exported, but knowledge can. Since culture is a channel of communication, it is a matter of finding the channel with which all parties feel comfortable. It seems to me that a culture of humility and honesty is necessary to build a healthy and successful mentoring relationship. I should point out that my relationships with all my mentees have remained good, even if they have not gone beyond the professional level. By saying that I am not being critical – I appreciate the particular merits of the different approaches. I consider the mentor’s task as a special expression of grace for which we should be grateful to the Lord.

Les défis et les possibilités du mentorat au travers des cultures / The challenges and opportunities of mentoring across cultures

by Joseph Koabike

Joseph Koabike, Translation Consultant, SIL Togo-Benin

We are happy to publish some posts both in English and in French. The English translation of this post is available below. To read in English, please scroll down.

Toute activité qui met des gens de cultures différentes ensemble pour une même cause est une bénédiction pour les parties prenantes. En effet, c’est une belle occasion d’apprendre à fonctionner dans un contexte différent de ce qu’on a toujours connu.

Cependant, le fait d’être conscient qu’on a en face de soi une personne qui n’a pas le même arrière-plan culturel crée déjà en nous un certain affolement. On a peur de ne pas être à la hauteur de la tâche, on craint de mal communiquer, de blesser par ignorance, bref d’être mal compris et ainsi d’échouer dans la mission de vouloir aider. Ce sont donc les premiers défis à relever pour jouir de la possibilité d’encadrer une personne de culture différente. A mon avis, la première démarche pour sortir de cette attitude négative de départ, c’est de discuter de l’a priori avant le début du mentorat. En d’autres termes, rassurer le protégé qu’il peut aborder tout sujet sans crainte. Et que toute observation qui lui sera faite sera dans le cadre du travail pour l’amélioration de sa formation, peu importe la forme culturelle utilisée. Il faut rappeler que vous appartenez à des cultures différentes et qu’il ne doit pas s’attendre à ce que le mentor maîtrise la culture du protégé au point d’utiliser les formes de communications les plus appropriées. Il  s’agit d’une relation donnant donnant. Pour que les occasions ne se réduisent pas en défis continuels, il faut parfois quitter le cadre du travail et parler d’autres sujets ordinaires tels que s’intéresser à la famille ou à la vie passée du protégé. Une fois l’atmosphère détendue, le protégé peut se sentir libre d’aborder d’autres questions qu’il n’aurait peut-être jamais abordées dans le cadre du travail. En s’intéressant plus à la personne qu’à son travail, on l’aide à améliorer son travail.

Il est évident qu’on ne peut pas maîtriser toutes les cultures avant de bien communiquer et de profiter des richesses de l’autre. Par contre, on peut tout apprendre d’une personne de l’autre culture en apprenant à mieux la connaître. Ainsi les défis culturels s’annulent devant la force de l’amour.

English translation:

Any activity that brings people from different cultures together for the same cause is a blessing to all involved. Indeed, it is a great opportunity to learn how to interact with others in a different context from that which we are used to.

On the other hand, we may be fearful of dealing with someone from a different cultural background. We may be afraid of miscommunication, of hurting others through ignorance or not being up to the task – in short, failing in our mission of helping. So these are the first challenges to be overcome in order to enjoy the opportunity of mentoring a person from a different culture. In my opinion, this fearful, negative attitude can be avoided by discussing any preconceptions before the mentoring begins. We should start by reassuring the mentee that they should feel free to broach any subject, and that anything we say to them, regardless of the cultural norms observed, is intended to improve their skills. The mentee should not expect the mentor to be so familiar with the mentee’s culture that they can effortlessly use the most appropriate forms of communication. It is a give-and-take relationship. To make sure that mentoring meetings are not merely a series of challenges, you may want to break away from work issues and discuss other ordinary topics such as family or the mentee’s background. Once the mood is relaxed, the mentee may feel free to discuss problems about work which he or she would not otherwise address. Focusing on the person and not just the assignment helps mentees improve their work.

Mastering another person’s culture is an impossible task. However, cultural differences should not block us in our mentoring efforts. Many believe that they have to master the culture of the other in order to communicate well and to appreciate the richness of the relationship. I believe that we can learn a great deal about a person from another culture by being intentional about seeking to know them better. In this way, cultural challenges are overcome by the power of love.

Le mentorat dans le contexte culturel africain / Mentoring in the African context

by Joseph Koabike

Joseph Koabike, Translation Consultant, SIL Togo-Benin

We are happy to publish some posts both in English and in French. The English translation of this post is available below. To read in English, please scroll down.

Assurer le mentorat des pairs en conformité avec les valeurs culturelles africaines et en respectant les traditions d’apprentissage et d’enseignement s’avère à la fois stimulant et délicat. J’ai eu le privilège d’accompagner six confrères africains en tant que mentor et chaque expérience a été différente. Au début, on se sent plus rassuré car beaucoup de valeurs culturelles semblent être les mêmes ou du moins proches dans la majorité des peuples africains vivant sur le continent. Cette confiance de départ rassure et donne de l’énergie et de l’enthousiasme pour démarrer l’encadrement. S’il est presque universellement connu qu’en Afrique le facteur de l’âge et de la place dans la hiérarchie sociale joue un rôle déterminant dans la communication, il n’est pas certain que ce facteur fonctionne toujours dans la transmission des connaissances académiques, ni dans la rigueur pour écrire les rapports sur le travail de traduction. En effet, ces rapports ne tolèrent pas les généralités mais demandent plutôt plus de précisions dans certains aspects.

J’ai donc pu noter que dans mes rapports avec mes protégés africains, il y a toujours eu une attitude de respect et d’humilité à mon égard. Ce respect peut constituer un piège si on n’y prend pas garde. En effet, le revers de la médaille, c’est que le protégé peut, par respect, éviter de poser des questions cruciales, espérant que le mentor, sachant ce qu’il fait, reviendra certainement sur le sujet. Or il se pourrait que le mentor ne pense même pas à certains aspects comme étant un problème. Je n’ai pas eu de protégé plus âgé que moi. Il me revenait donc d’encourager les protégés à poser des questions de toute nature pour mieux comprendre leur futur rôle.

J’ai aussi noté  le métissage de cultures au sein de l’élite intellectuelle. En effet, nous sommes tous le fruit de plusieurs cultures, notamment notre culture de base africaine pour ceux qui ont grandi dans le contexte du village, la culture de l’école qui n’est pas forcément celle de l’Occident mais plutôt celle des villes africaines, puis la culture occidentale acquise au cours de notre développement et dans les rapports avec les autres. Dépendant du cheminement de chacun, l’approche culturelle est différente. Il ne faut pas oublier qu’il n’y a pas une culture africaine mais des cultures africaines. Au début j’ai pu commettre quelques erreurs culturelles en pensant que j’avais en face de moi un Africain qui comprendrait ce que j’essayais de communiquer de façon culturellement appropriée. Je m’étais trompé, j’ai appris avec un peu de honte et cela m’a fait grandir. Le plus grand avantage que j’ai eu et que j’ai beaucoup apprécié c’est l’ambiance fraternelle. J’ai pu m’approcher même des membres de famille de certains au point que je fais presque partie de leurs familles, leurs enfants m’appelant affectueusement papa. Cela fait chaud au cœur !

English translation:

Mentoring colleagues in a way that is consistent with African cultural values and respecting traditions of learning and teaching is both exciting and challenging. I have had the privilege of walking alongside six African brothers as a mentor, but each of these mentoring experiences has been different. The fact that most of the African peoples living on the continent share many similar cultural values brings an initial reassurance to the mentoring relationship. This initial reassurance provides confidence, energy and enthusiasm to start off the mentoring process. It is well known that in African society, age and position in the social hierarchy play a major role in communication. However, when sharing academic knowledge, this is not always appropriate or effective. Many aspects of reporting on translation work require precision rather than generalities. Traditional African interactions in which greater age and higher social position give the right to provide guidance, do not necessarily lead to the precise reports required.

I have noticed that in my dealings with my African mentees, there has always been an attitude of respect and humility towards me. This respect can be a trap, if the mentor does not take care.  Out of respect the mentee may avoid asking crucial questions, believing that the mentor knows what he or she is doing and will mention all the key issues. The mentor may not even think of this as a problem. I have never mentored someone who is older than me. It is therefore my responsibility to encourage mentees to ask questions of all kinds so that they have a better understanding of the dynamics of the ideal mentoring relationship. This should give them a better understanding of how to conduct an effective mentoring relationship when they, in turn, become mentors.

I have also observed the blending of cultures among the intellectual elite. Indeed, we are all the fruit of several cultures. These may include our core African culture, for those who have grown up in the context of an African village. It may include the culture of education in school which is not necessarily that of the West but rather of African cities. It may also include the Western culture acquired during our professional development and in our relationships with others. Each individual person’s cultural approach to mentoring is different, depending on their background. We must not forget that there is not one African culture but many African cultures. When I first started mentoring, I may have made some cultural mistakes because I thought that I was interacting with an African who would understand, in a culturally appropriate way, what I was trying to communicate. Though these mistakes caused me a little embarrassment at the time, they really helped me to grow as a mentor.
I really appreciate the spirit of fellowship which is the greatest asset within any mentor-mentee relationship. I have been able to make myself accessible even to some mentees’ family members to the point where I am almost a part of their families! Their children lovingly call me “Papa” which warms my heart!

Connected by video despite COVID-19

by Andreas Ernst

Andreas Ernst, Scripture Engagement and Media Consultant, SIL Cameroon

When it comes to training, I find nothing more rewarding than working on a hands-on project, so that my mentees or students and I can learn something concrete together, enjoy the process, and find motivation to keep going. However, whether we like it or not, the spread of a virus, the lack of funding or an increasing need to mentor others across geographical boundaries may lead us to look for alternative ways of keeping up our training and mentoring efforts. 

One of the ways I have found online mentoring most rewarding is by regularly connecting online with former students to discuss the joys and challenges they face in implementing what they have learned and to set new goals. To my great surprise, I have found this more rewarding than I expected. I have found that simply putting in the effort to ask questions, to listen well, to learn from my students’ experiences and to acknowledge the difficulties they encounter, even when the internet connection is bad, establishes a real sense of shared vision and responsibility. Another benefit I have observed is that such follow-up mentoring helps me see what aspects of training my students struggle with most, and what elements or tools are most useful for them in their contexts. 

If you are like me, you may find mentoring folks online on things like using software or learning to complete step-by-step procedures challenging. However, perhaps you could consider making short video tutorials for your mentees? Recently I started making video tutorials for my students who are working on creating educational radio dramas. As I share these video tutorials via WhatsApp groups, I also send them short exercises that are in line with the tutorials and offer rewards for progress or particular achievements. Only time will tell how effective this new approach is. But I already see promising signs. I found out from one of my mentees that the Ministry of Health in his country had asked for permission to use the educational radio drama we had made together on a health-related subject and to broadcast it across the whole country. What a tremendous encouragement this was on a day I was feeling low! 

Whatever particular skills you have been passing on to others, I want to encourage us all to also invest in online mentoring. True, online mentoring cannot fully replace face-to-face interaction for skills that require demonstrating procedures hands-on. However, I believe that online mentoring as a follow-up to face-to-face training is highly effective because:

  • Online mentoring is very cost-effective and allows ongoing and regular follow-up.
  • Online mentoring can be just as inspiring for all parties involved as face-to-face mentoring. In fact, online mentoring may be even more motivating because it allows you to shift the focus away from being an instructor towards learning from each other.
  • Online mentoring adds a powerful personal and vision-sharing dimension to capacity building, which is vital for developing our future leaders and passing on the baton. This is important to remember, as some of our mentees work in situations where they lack the kind of leadership and support they need so much to serve the Lord with their full potential.
  • Online mentoring helps you develop other trainers. The regular assignments and evaluation help to develop critical thinking and self-motivation skills in your mentees, which in turn helps you identify folks who could become your future training assistants.
  • Online mentoring helps you collect testimonies of how your training is making a difference on the field. These are not only motivating, but also useful for partnership development and funding proposals.
  • Mentoring helps you improve the content and methodology of your training. For example, following up with my radio students via Whatsapp has made me realize that two of the major barriers they face to implementing what they have learned are a) the lack of equipment in their own studios and  b) the lack of support from their leadership. As a result, I have started to include the directors of radio stations in evaluating the implementation assignments of my students, as well as providing opportunities for them to purchase training-specific equipment.

What is your experience with online mentoring? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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

Advantages and disadvantages of formal mentoring

by Katherine O’Donnell

Katherine O’Donnell, Scripture Engagement Consultant, SIL Tanzania

I recently completed the StrengthsFinder from Gallup and one of my strengths turned out to be ‘Developer’. This came as no surprise to people who know me well, who know what a buzz I get from teaching and seeing people grow. As the Coordinator of the Literacy & Scripture Engagement Department in Mbeya, Tanzania, you probably won’t be surprised to also hear that I have been informally mentoring my Tanzanian colleagues over the years, without even realising that what I was doing could be called ‘mentoring’. But now we have heard about ‘formal’ mentoring and the question is, how is this different from what I was doing before, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this formal mentoring?

Firstly, how is it different? I see a key difference as being the final goal. As I informally mentored my colleagues, my goal was simply to see them grow and develop in their job and in their relationship with God and I harboured hopes of them taking on more leadership responsibilities. Good goals, but they were mostly goals in my own head. Formal mentoring, on the other hand, involves the mentor and mentee agreeing on goals and time-frames and working towards specific growth in professional capacity (e.g. to becoming a specialist or consultant or leader), for the benefit of the organisation. Competency Based Certification (or the older Consultant Growth Plans) may help guide the mentor and mentee in setting the goals and making sure that the necessary competencies are ticked off for growth. 

I have now entered into a formal mentoring relationship with one of my colleagues, who we specifically want to see becoming a Scripture Engagement specialist and Department Coordinator. I am also formally mentoring someone in another entity towards becoming an SE Consultant. So are there any advantages to this formal mentoring?

Advantages of formal mentoring

While my experience is limited, here are some advantages that I feel are true for formal mentoring:

  • Building capacity in the entity and the leadership knows about it – formal mentoring agreements are done with the knowledge of supervisors and domain team leaders, so it goes beyond the local office to impacting branch-wide strategy. 
  • Intentionality with clear time-bound goals and planned meetings – informal mentoring can just drift along, but by formalising it you make sure things happen.
  • Achievement and celebration – it’s satisfying to tick things off a formal list that you have agreed on! Together you can celebrate the progress.
  • New or closer relationships – a mentor has the joy of getting to know the mentee in a deeper way than they might otherwise have done and of getting to know new people if they get involved in mentoring people outside of their entity.
  • Continuity – informal mentoring usually stops if the mentor leaves or changes role, but hopefully formal mentoring would continue as it is not necessary for the mentor to be on location or, if they really can’t continue, another mentor should be found because this is for more than personal development, it is for the benefit of the whole entity.

Disadvantages of formal mentoring

There are some down sides to it too, partly dependent on your personality or situation as a mentor:

  • Feels like a burden – as soon as you make something ‘formal’ it can feel like a big responsibility that you don’t have time for. It certainly is more of a time commitment, but I think it also has the potential for clearer and better results.
  • More administration – there is more admin involved in making sure mentoring is being coordinated across an entity and followed up.
  • Long-term commitment in the midst of an uncertain future – I found it hard to enter into a two-year mentoring agreement when our work permit situation is so uncertain. It leaves me feeling worried that I won’t be able to fulfill my commitment to the mentee. (Maybe this is because another of my Gallup Strengths is ‘Responsibility’!)
  • Anxiety – it increases my anxiety levels – will I be able to help this person grow in the way that their supervisor / entity leadership is hoping?!
  • Partiality – does it look like I am showing partiality to one colleague by only being in a formal mentoring agreement with one of them? When informally mentoring I could mentor them all together and it didn’t matter if some weren’t making as much progress because there were no formal goals. That’s different now.

Just yesterday I met with one of my mentees, and it was encouraging to see him moving forward in the areas we had discussed and taking the lead in conversation, so despite the potential challenges of formal mentoring, I think it’s worth giving it a go!

What is your experience? And how could we overcome some of the perceived challenges of formal mentoring? Share your thoughts by leaving a reply below.