How to Lead as a Mentor

Leaders who see their job as helping employees be successful (mentoring) create a competent, confident workforce that is engaged, happy, and productive—and results are sure to follow.

Although there’s a plethora of advice on leadership, more than half of all people put in leadership positions fail.

Why is the success rate so low?

A key factor is that recruiters and higher-level leaders who select supervisors often look for the wrong characteristics. They focus on results with which the person has been associated. I put it that way because those outcomes frequently have been achieved despite the leader.

The most important determinant of leadership success isn’t what results are associated with the person but how the person gets results.

I’d like to change the term “leaders” to “mentors” because the sole purpose of mentors is to arrange the conditions to help the people they lead be successful. That requires influencing and guiding employee behavior to improve performance, using positive reinforcement, which elicits discretionary effort. Highlighting mentoring also recognizes that the measure of a leader is the success of every follower.

The majority of leaders instead use negative reinforcement, with such practices as goal setting, stretch goals, job requirements, and expectations. Most managers don’t see these practices as negative reinforcers, but they are. Employees who don’t reach goals, requirements, or expectations typically receive some sort of punishment. While this approach can bring short-term success, it causes inconsistent results and the kind of engagement that produces a culture of doing just enough to get by. Significantly, it doesn’t deliver the essential ingredient for sustainable results: discretionary effort—effort involving initiative, ownership, buy-in, and volunteerism.

Discretionary effort certainly could use a boost. The Gallup State of the Global Workplace report in 2013 found only 13 percent of employees to be engaged. And that’s based on what employees say they do, not what they actually do. Survey findings of this type remind me of what Garrison Keillor says of the children of Lake Wobegon in “A Prairie Home Companion”: They are all above average. In any case, most companies don’t come close to creating a workplace that brings out the best in people.

Apply the Principles of Behavior

To increase above-and-beyond effort, leaders need to invest time in applying the principles of behavior and serving as mentors. These six steps will help you make the transition:

  1. Focus on behaviors rather than results. Spend time observing behavior, and providing ongoing feedback and reinforcement to help people improve. Take a cue from the golf coach, who watches the position of a player’s fingers on the golf club, the width of his stance, and the shift of his weight from one foot to another, and then advises on refinements.
  2. Learn what positively reinforces each individual. Different reinforcers work for each person. Simply observing performance can help some people, while others interpret it as punishing. The same goes for public praise. Words such as “good job” rarely are reinforcing unless it’s based on a strong relationship between the manager or supervisor and the employee. Identify what motivates each team member, largely through helpful interactions with them.
  3. Listen and ask questions rather than telling and judging. Many managers and supervisors are so busy telling employees what and how to do something that they don’t make time to ask how problems could be prevented or listen to ideas about how performance could be improved.
  4. Go out of your way to reinforce good work. When you observe people performing well and exceeding requirements, reinforce their behavior. Promote team celebrations.
  5. Ask employees to help solve problems. Seek employees’ input on most problems and decisions. Front-line employees often can troubleshoot nagging issues, and doing so gives them a sense of ownership.
  6. Think small. Recognize incremental progress. Watching for small steps increases the number of times you can provide meaningful reinforcers. Because positive reinforcers accelerate the rate of behavior improvement, the smaller the change that is reinforced, the faster the improvement. You’ll find this shaping method much more effective than setting stretch goals.

Of course, leaders need positive reinforcement, too, so they will benefit from their leaders recognizing effective mentoring behaviors.

Leaders who see their job as helping employees be successful (mentoring) create a competent, confident workforce that is engaged, happy, and productive—and results are sure to follow.

Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., is founder of management consultancy Aubrey Daniels International and the Aubrey Daniels Institute. He also is the author of six best-selling business books, including “Measure of a Leader, Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement,” and “Performance Management: Changing Behavior That Drives Organizational Effectiveness.”

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