How to explain the difference between coaching and mentoring

Imagine a work landscape where the management is supportive, non-judgemental and encouraging of employees. A culture that is based on coaching. Now open your eyes and look at the reality. Does it match up?

Despite good intentions and a will to help, what usually emerges is a culture of mentoring, not coaching. Politics, hierarchies, hidden agendas and the desire to do good all come to the fore when coaching happens with colleagues from the same organisation. Instead of helping individuals to develop, ‘coaches’ inadvertently give advice. That’s fine for a mentoring relationship, though it means that the coaching culture you hope to develop won’t emerge and certainly won’t change anything. A coaching culture is redundant unless there’s organisation-wide understanding of what that means.

Tackling misinformation leads to clarity and better outcomes

Farscape is often asked by organisations to help develop a coaching culture. Yet more often than not, coaching is confused with mentoring. There are two common problems L&D professionals face. Firstly, how to sell a coaching culture to a senior team that’s confused between coaching and mentoring. Secondly, how to tell a senior team that believes it has a coaching culture that what they’re practising is in fact mentorship. Clarity is vital. Not only for greater understanding but for ensuring that the desired results are achieved.

Coaching and mentoring definitions

  • A coach doesn’t require any knowledge of a particular job or knowledge of the business. The coach is an expert in not knowing. Their role is to ask questions to help the coachee find the answer.
  • A mentor usually comes from a similar professional lineage as the mentee. They have hands-on experience that is directly relevant to the person that they are working with. A mentor’s role is to offer wisdom, to guide and advise the individual.

Benefits of coaching and mentoring

Coaching and mentoring are distinct from one another, and they each have their own merits. The major benefit of coaching is that it makes the individual being coached responsible for their own progress. It encourages reflection and helps to improve self-awareness in the coachee. This results in individuals who are better equipped to deal with challenges and to relate to colleagues and their work.

Mentoring emphasises the person dispensing advice. The person being mentored is much more passive than in coaching; they receive wisdom, rather than developing it. The handing down of acquired knowledge is mentoring’s biggest advantage. Where a coach may be able to point the coachee in the right direction, a mentor can offer concrete examples derived from first-hand experience.

Coaching leads to learning that lasts

There are fundamental differences between coaching and mentoring. In a coach-coachee relationship, the coachee does the legwork. Though the coach might prompt and question the coachee, the onus is on the person being coached to come up with the answer. It’s not necessarily easy, the work can be a challenging process. The advantage is that by encouraging the individual to problem solve, they can find the answer themselves and the learning is much more likely to stick, as it is they who has gone through the discovery process.

There are drawbacks to coaching. Firstly, it may not always be the correct tool for the job. Secondly, and most importantly, coaching can fall short when it is carried out by someone else in the business. The temptation to slip into mentoring can be immense; in fact, many internal coaches do slip into a mentoring role because they are not aware of the fundamental differences between coaching and mentoring. It’s understandable – if you have knowledge or insight that someone else in your team doesn’t have, then the desire to help can take over and instead of guiding someone to find the answer themselves, the ‘coach’ dons a mentoring cloak and begins to advise. By offering answers, the learning is diminished as the individual is doing much less independent work.

Misunderstandings about coaching and mentoring inhibit success

When coaching and mentoring are confused, the impact of either is negligible. And when confusion abounds and results don’t emerge then frustration begins to show.

This turns opinions against coaching and mentoring respectively. If your senior team believe they have a coaching culture, when in practice it’s more like mentorship, and coachees don’t develop self-awareness, resilience, and problem-solving skills, it appears that coaching doesn’t work. Likewise, if an individual has been coached and develops a keen sense of self-awareness yet their knowledge of systems and processes stagnates, it appears that mentoring doesn’t work.

Practicalities of a coaching culture

A coaching culture takes time to develop. It’s an ongoing process of reflection and there can be tensions when an internal coach is used. Employees often mistrust, even disbelieve, that coaching is truly confidential and free of judgement. A safe, judgement-free space is very good in theory. It doesn’t feel so good sitting in a one-to-one with your manager with whom you discussed your challenges just days or weeks ago. Will they bring it up? What if it ends up on the record, not off it? Cue uncomfortable squirming in their seat and a lack of focus.

From the manager’s perspective, it’s tempting to give away answers when presented with a dilemma. It’s also extremely difficult to put aside all agendas: the team’s, the department’s, and the entire company’s agenda. Politics can get in the way and the notion that coaching is a neutral place where the individual’s needs take precedent is forgotten.

Being realistic about what a coaching culture can achieve

Organisations need to be realistic about whether internal people can be impartial coaches. Can they genuinely set aside their seniority, any kind of agenda, their professional knowledge, and be a sounding board for the coachee? From the work that we do with organisations, it’s evident that this is extremely difficult.

An external coach removes the worry of impartiality. They are beyond the scope of the organisation and are therefore free of the politics, seniority and interpersonal relationships that plague the interactions between a coach and coachee from the same organisation. This neutrality improves the chances of creating a genuinely safe space that’s free of judgement. An external coach is beneficial then, and a coaching consultancy makes finding one much easier. A coach that has been tried and tested by a third party offers you and your senior team the reassurance that they are skilled at what they do and that they get results. Our blog on finding the right coach contains more practical tips and insights into the best way to go about seeking a coach.

When not to use coaching

The benefits of coaching are many, though that doesn’t mean to say that it’s always the right tool for the job. Some things do require the passing on of know-how. You can’t coach someone into possessing knowledge that they simply don’t have. Perhaps the greatest asset of a good coach is the ability to recognise when coaching is appropriate, and when it is not. To hold fast to the belief that coaching is the answer to all ills is misguided, short-sighted and will ultimately lead the client – who is footing the bill – to disappointment.

Knowledge vs. discovery – deciding which is appropriate

Questionable confidentiality, awkwardness, and a keen awareness that the coach is higher up the food chain are resolved by using an external coach. Using an agency to find a coach removes the impartiality hurdle and also offers the reassurance that the individual has been vetted and deemed to be professional by experts. What’s more, a coach that knows the boundaries between coaching and mentoring can help your organisation achieve the results it wants. Not only will they recognise the limitations of their own abilities, and be able to suggest when a mentor would be more appropriate, they can help keep the organisation on track and remind them of the differences between coaching and mentoring and which discipline will help them get to where they want to go.

If you’re doubtful that your organisation truly grasps what a coaching culture is, why not give us a call. Not only have we worked with many organisations to develop coaching cultures, we have plenty of experience in explaining the difference between coaching and mentoring. Perhaps we can help you clarify the muddy water. We’re on 0117 370 1800 and would welcome the opportunity of a conversation.

/* Post types */ < line fill="none" stroke="#FFFFFF" stroke-width="1.3422" stroke-miterlimit="10" x1="4.617" y1="41.609" x2="31.22" y2="41.609"/> .share