The three-way conversation between coach, client and the client’s boss, is commonplace in coaching. Sometimes also involving HR, it provides a valuable opportunity to clarify agendas, establish the support needed from the boss, and improve the direct report-boss relationship.

Yet in the context of mentoring, this conversation is typically seen as one to be avoided — not least because it encourages the reintroduction of the power dynamic in the mentoring relationship and anecdotal evidence provides ample examples of it going drastically wrong. In the context of professional mentoring, however, or when executive coaches find themselves drawn into a mentoring role as well, it is a real issue. So it’s important to understand the dynamics of the three-way conversation and how it may influence the mentoring relationship positively or negatively.

In the absence of any empirical evidence, we can hypothesise several potential contributory factors. One is that the mentor will typically be seen as less of a neutral player than a coach. The mentoring relationship encourages intimacy and, as Coral Gardiner’s research indicates, is a form of “professional friendship”. So, while a coach is employed by the organisation to work with a client, a mentor’s role in this kind of conversation implies some level of advocacy — especially in sponsorship mentoring and at a more subtle level in developmental mentoring. Given that developmental mentoring aims to support the mentee in developing their skills of self-advocacy, mentors are understandably wary of undermining that independence. Rather, they help the mentee think through and rehearse the conversations they need to have with their boss.

Another factor is that, when the mentor and mentee are both employed by the same organization, there is often an existing relationship between the mentor and the mentee’s boss. Positive or negative, that relationship complicates the three-way dynamic, potentially making all three players less open, or less willing to challenge. Any of all of them may feel an increased sense of risk. The threat to confidentiality and the existence of a “safe space” that a mentee often feels within the mentoring relationship is particularly vulnerable.

A further dimension is that involving the power dynamic between mentor and mentee.  In developmental mentoring, the power differentiation between mentor and mentee is put to one side.  The involvement of the mentor with the line manager in a three-way meeting could seek to remind or reinforce with the mentee this dimension exists, as these two players may feel far more comfortable together in this discussion and the mentee feel a little “ganged up” on. Equally, if the mentor adopts the role of advocate for the mentee, this may harm the mentee’s relationship with their boss.

In coaching, the triangular conversation involves coaching both boss and direct report together. There is a shared agenda that boils down to how deeper insight, clearer objectives and collaboration between boss and coachee can contribute to the coachee’s performance, and hence to that of the team. In mentoring, with its stronger focus on career issues, the boss has much less of a personal stake in the outcomes of the relationship. Or more simply, the mentoring agenda is typically 100 per cent the mentee’s, while the coaching agenda may incorporate both coachee and organizational priorities.

These differentiating factors raise significant questions for coaches, who move into the mentoring space and for mentors, who move into coaching mode, in response to mentee need. How much danger of creating unwelcome dependency lies in the three-way conversation on behalf of a mentee? What is the relationship between the coach/mentor and the boss and how might this be influenced by context? How does the contract with coachee/mentee and boss differ between mentoring and coaching?

If circumstances arise, where the three-way conversation is essential (or imposed) then very clear groundrules will be needed to avoid the power issues.  Key questions are:

–       What prevents the mentee from having the same conversation with their boss (and /or HR) on their own?

–       What will be the impact in terms of the mentee taking responsibility for his or her own issues?

–       How might this impact the relationship between the mentee and their boss?

The likely default position for mentors and mentoring programmes is therefore to avoid the three-way conversation wherever possible.

This is a fruitful area for future research!

© David Clutterbuck, 2014

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