Mentoring and Subtle Bias

A while back, I was speaking to an executive about mentoring opportunities for less experienced managers. This executive felt passionate about creating more opportunities for people to learn and grow, particularly women who want to move up in their careers and tend to get less organic coaching. He spoke about a successful program he had seen at has past workplace.

Monthly, executives would pull employee names out of a jar and take that person out to chat. This paired strong performers with access to a diverse set of executives (and potential mentors). People across the organization really looked forwards to the program. Sounds great, right?! As I dug deeper into how it worked from there, this executive casually commented that he’d take male coworkers out for a beer after work and women out for a coffee to talk career and development.

I wasn’t sure why initially it felt a little bit off to me, but later I understood: the difference between the experience based on gender. I imagine this bias can play out in other ways, too. Let’s get real – I like going for beers after work just as much as my male coworkers. Plus there’s a level of candor, access, and bonding that can happen over a drink that rarely happens over a coffee (in my experience). It’s the same with hitting the golf course or catching a game.

Listen, I’m not judging. It comes from a good place of wanting to make sure nobody feels uncomfortable – a female employee, significant others, whatever. As a gay woman in a people-related function, I can totally relate. I am hyper aware of how my friendliness, teasing, and sarcasm are interpreted by both my male and female coworkers. My intent is to be accessible and open; I never want to make someone uncomfortable or wonder if it’s coming from the wrong place.

Having this conversation made me wonder if I’m exerting the same bias and not affording people the same opportunities based on my sensitivity to others’ perceptions. The truth is, I’m not sure but I want to make sure I’m not in the future. So how can we get better? I think it comes down to asking yourself two questions:

  • What are you comfortable doing for everyone?
  • What could other people (regardless of circumstance) be uncomfortable with?

Once you know that, consider offering the same “safe” option to everyone – for example, coffee across the board. Alternatively, offer an option for people to choose between – something you are comfortable with and something you think everyone would be comfortable doing. For example, I could offer to take a less experienced coworker out for a beer or lunch – their choice. Then give of yourself as best you can.

Just remember to be cognizant that you are offering the same opportunities across the board to new potential mentees. As time passes, you’ll likely develop closer relationships with certain people and give more of yourself to them. I’d only encourage you to be vigilant about starting from the same place for all.



Forget what HR tells you to do … do what works for your team.

Let me back it up a little bit. I’m not saying to not follow whatever performance management process your company has in place – we’ve worked really hard to put something in place as a baseline to ensure people are getting feedback in some scaleable format. I’m also not saying to not listen to HR’s coaching – many of us geek out about this sort of thing and love to help you become more effective at delivering feedback. I am saying not to let yourself be limited by whatever system is in place – see at as a framework to build off of.

We need to do a reboot of performance management at my current company, so I’ve been reading up a bit, studying new tools and thinking about how to best combine simplicity, regularity and efficacy in a scaleable system, while leaving room for teams to do what works best for them. Here are some key components for any manager thinking about performance management.

Regular feedback. I meet with everyone on my team once per week. Each person fills me in on anything they need help with, talks about things they have accomplished and asks any questions they have for me. I save the end of our time to ask questions about how they’ve taken on a project, why they’ve made the the decisions they have, or how well something went. Then I provide my feedback on anything that jumps to mind based on the prior week. Rather than forced feedback covering a long period of time, it’s timely little bits of highly-specific feedback (at least, that’s the goal … I have off weeks).

Career planning. Several times a year, an informal check-in on career goals is helpful (and greatly appreciated). Talk about their big picture goals; don’t dance around the fact (or get angry with the realization) that they likely won’t be with you and your company for forever; figure out the skills they need to hit their goals; and figure out the projects and coaching you can realistically provide for them right now. If you are committed to their growth long-term and figure out how to help them, you will almost certainly get more loyalty and effort from your team.

Ask for feedback. If you are helping your team grow, there is no reason for you not to leverage them to help you grow. Ask what you are doing and not doing well. Ask how they like to be managed and what is driving them crazy. Some of my biggest growing moments as a manager came from open feedback from my team. You’ll need to earn trust first – nobody is going to give tough (but helpful) feedback to their manager if they are worried it’ll come back to haunt them. Which also means that you shouldn’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready to hear it (I’ve seen this turn sour a number of times).

Do an intake. If you take on a new team or new person, do an intro meeting. I have one I do 1-2 times a year that covers seven questions and helps me immensely as a manager.

  • What do you love to do?
  • What do you hate to do?
  • What are you awesome at (overlap allowed)?
  • What are you bad at (overlap allowed)?
  • What are your goals – career and skills to acquire?
  • How do you like to be managed?
  • How do you not like to be managed?

This allows me to deploy people on things in their wheelhouse, challenge them with projects that will build skills they’ll need to hit their growth goals, and saves me some hard lessons in managing them the right way. It also lets me give more helpful context to the projects I assign them (ie. “I’m giving you this project because I think it’ll give some skills needed to hit this goal”).

The wrap: Talk to your team about how they want feedback. Ask them about a system that works for them. Be open and honest with them. Commit to growing them. It may seem counterintuitive to be committed to getting someone promoted (or hired to a bigger role elsewhere), but it will pay off in performance and engagement. It’ll likely help with retention, too (because people ride out the hard times for a good manager). Being a good manager is a lot of work – giving feedback and managing performance are both a huge part of it. Find a good mentor, read up, experiment and ask for feedback. It’ll pay off in your career growth.