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0 Motivational Mentoring: Figuring out what motivates your mentee and helping them tap into that to achieve their goals

The first time I signed up to be a mentor, I thought it would be easy. After all, I’d spent several years as a supervisor in the military—mentoring should be a breeze. So, it came as a bit of a shock when I discovered that mentoring was not only different than supervising, but in some ways, more challenging. The biggest obstacle? My mentee’s motivation—or seeming lack thereof. Despite clear goals, previous success, and the added support of a mentor’s encouragement and accountability, my mentee just did not seem willing to follow through on his mentoring plan.

We’ve all heard the Chinese proverb, “You give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish, and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.” As mentors, we want to teach our mentees to fish. And while my mentee came to the program with a list of goals, what he was really casting out into the waters for was the motivation to achieve them.

So, how do you help a mentee find their motivation? Below are some tips that I found useful.

Empathize but don’t assume responsibility. At first, I felt frustrated with my mentee. I questioned why he signed up for the program if he did not intend to do the work. But the hard truth is that we all—every single one of us—have set goals that we then either abandoned completely or endured several failed attempts before finally achieving them. Draw from those experiences to empathize with your mentee and relate to their struggle to get and stay motivated. Better yet, share those experiences with them and talk about how you overcame your own motivation struggles.

Be careful, though, that while you are putting yourself in your mentee’s shoes, you do not start trying to take steps for them. You cannot make your mentee achieve their goals, nor should you. The more you do for them, the less you are actually helping (think fish vs. fishing). Do not assume responsibility for their successes or failures. And if you find yourself struggling with the urge to take over or becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of progress, reflect on your own motivations. Are you thinking about your mentee’s progress as a measure of your success as a mentor? Are you thinking about how you would do things and expecting your mentee to take the same approach because it obviously makes the most sense?

Famed director Steven Spielberg once said, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

Help your mentee recognize and admit that they are struggling with motivation. Help them understand things that have worked for others. Help them identify ways they could try motivating themselves. But recognize that this is the most you can—or should—do. The rest is up to them.

Be willing to have a difficult conversation. Your mentee may not realize they are struggling with motivation. After a few meetings with my mentee, I realized that what sounded like excuses to me were, in his mind, insurmountable obstacles. He did not think he struggled with motivation—he had instead convinced himself that these challenges that he did not want to work to overcome were challenges that he could not overcome no matter what he did. It was time for a kind, but firm, reality check. So, I reached down into my arsenal of anecdotes and told him about a time I talked myself out of achieving a goal by focusing on all the things that were in my way. The hardest part to swallow about that failure, I shared, was that I will never know whether I could have succeeded because, deep down, I know only that I did not truly try.

Discover what drives them. There is no such thing as an unmotivated person. Everyone is motivated to do something. The same mentee who was not motivated to work on his mentoring action plan was working on a master’s degree in his off time. Clearly, he had motivation. The trick is helping your mentee identify what drives them in the areas where they are easily self-motivated and figure out how to transfer that to the task they struggle to complete.

Schedule one or multiple mentoring sessions to focus exclusively on motivation. Prime the conversation by briefly sharing your own lessons learned about digging deep and finding your true motivation. Ask your mentee to reflect on times they felt excited and motivated to accomplish a goal in the past and to honestly assess why. Then, ask open-ended questions about their new goals: Why do you want to do that? What makes you excited about it? How long has that been your dream? What have you done so far? What is your plan?
Listen closely to your mentee and keep a list of obvious—and potential underlying—motivators that you hear in their answers. Once you have worked together to identify some of their key drivers, discuss ways that they can apply those to achieve their current goals.

Don’t give up. When your whole purpose as a mentor is to help someone succeed, it can feel counterintuitive and downright impossible to disassociate your success from theirs. But you must remember that being an effective mentor is about what you do, not your mentee. Just as you cannot take credit for their successes, you cannot take responsibility for their failures.

Make time, show up, give honest and meaningful feedback, and follow through on things you have offered to do. If your mentee is not doing their part, be willing to talk to them—and listen—about what is holding them back. Don’t accept excuses, but don’t judge, don’t scold, and above all, don’t give up on them Sometimes, a mentee just needs someone else to recognize their potential and keep believing in them when others would have thrown up their hands.

A mentee’s lack of motivation can be a serious test of your own. But even if your mentee never takes a single step toward achieving their goals, if you continuously put your best mentoring foot forward, you will have given them great mentorship. What they do with it is 100 percent their choice and their responsibility.