How to prevent micro-mentorship from becoming micromanagement

Tech’s “move fast and break things” ethos doesn’t allow much time for mentorship. Fewer than three in 10 employees in the U.S., U.K., Spain, France, and Germany strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. The solution requires organizations to re-engineer performance systems and culture and turn managers into coaches.

One particularly effective method is micro-mentorship, which creates a productive, real-time feedback loop.

What is micro-mentorship?

Unlike micromanagement — where leaders try to control every detail of a project — micro-mentorship focuses on defining the parameters for success and taking a more hands-off approach.

Managers do not need to dictate the exact steps for achieving the desired outcome. Anyone who thinks there’s only one right way to accomplish a task is probably a micromanager. Rather, a strong leader will show their team the river and let them decide how to cross it.

Along the way, a micro-mentor acts as an advocate. They push for the necessary resources and tools, provide encouragement, and cultivate a positive cultural dynamic.

Feedback comes in bite-size, digestible installments, and conversations are bidirectional: Both the team member and the lead must be vulnerable and open to the other person’s input. This is much easier to achieve in a casual setting, like grabbing coffee or going for a walk together.

I recommend opening the conversation with a question like, “I’ve encountered some challenges and I want to hear your view. What do you think of [insert issue]?”

It’s direct yet non-confrontational. Whether it’s the mentor or mentee asking, neither feels attacked or degraded.

It is a good practice for leads to take notes during each interaction to track concerns, progress, and thoughts from their mentees. Then, when the inevitable review cycle comes around, everything is right there — already written and discussed. Nothing comes as a shock.

Finally, good micro-mentors will reward strong performances and act decisively in regards to consistent underperformers.

Whether it’s a note of thanks, public praise, or a gift, there are many ways to boost morale and show appreciation to team members. Promotions and raises only come once a year in most cases, so these smaller rewards keep up the momentum. People need to feel recognized and respected year-round to stay happy at work.

With employees who still struggle after months of patient attempts to mentor, strong leaders need to recognize that it’s not working out — especially if an individual tends to cause toxicity within the team. In these scenarios, it’s best for everyone to move on quickly. Thanks to micro-mentorship, these things surface quickly and mentees can be given multiple chances to make it.

One of the toughest aspects of micro-mentorship is the mentor drawing the boundary where trials and possible failures can occur without risking the project. This fine line is where micro-mentorship meets micromanagement. Some leaders prefer an almost zero tolerance to risks and failures and could easily lean toward a micromanagement strategy. A healthy boundary that safeguard’s the team’s interests and yet allows room for mentees to have some latitude for experiential learning would be best for all.

No management technique is 100% foolproof. There will still be times when a role just isn’t the right fit for someone, and that’s okay. But most of the time, micro-mentorship will help establish a strong bond between mentors and mentees — one that can last for many years.

Leading a millennial workforce

I’ve been lucky to have colleagues follow me for decades from company to company, and they say one of the things they came for is the transparent, growth-oriented leadership culture I’ve always believed in through micro-mentoring. Part of this success, however, has required adapting to new environmental and generational influences.

Today, we’re all more distracted. Our smartphone is our fifth limb and the calendar notifications, emails, Slack messages, and texts never stop. It’s part of the reason traditional mentoring no longer works — we lack the luxury of time to sit for hours and talk through a person’s goals and development without interruption.

Millennials expect fast feedback, as does anyone else who’s adjusted to the speed and convenience of technology. Focus shifts quickly and concerns need to be addressed in the moment, or they will feel irrelevant by the time they’re broached.

Also, people in the earlier years of their career tend to job-hop. Millennials (like all professionals) care about the bigger picture. They want to be valued, fulfilled, and led by people they trust. Instead of churning through talent, tech companies can build an environment that drives loyalty through micro-mentorship.

It’s not rocket science, but leaders won’t become star micro-mentors overnight. Leaders will learn as they go, and I’m still learning too. As long as there’s real-time transparency, vulnerability, and room for error, the team will continue to grow together — building amazing things along the way.

Vivek Lakshman, is founder of Chatlets.ai and VP of Innovation for emerging products at Pramati Technologies, a global startup incubator and technology investor.

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