Giving Feedback in Mentoring

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

One of the more underutilized tools mentors have at their disposal is giving feedback to a protégé. Because most mentors don’t observe protégés in their daily work, they may not feel they have the opportunity to give feedback. As a result, protégés miss an opportunity to learn from the mentor’s point of view. However, there are sources of information that a mentor can use to give a protégé feedback:

  • Observation: If the opportunity is available, a mentor might observe a protégé, like making a presentation or leading a meeting. While a mentor would want to be as unobtrusive as possible, direct observation can give a protégé tremendous insight from a valued ally.
  • Discussions with Protégé: By paying attention to what a protégé says, a mentor can often replay a protégé’s own words within one meeting or across meetings. Hearing someone else feed back what has been said casts it in a different light, changing the protégé’s understanding. Also, a protégé may be acting under false or contradictory assumptions that can be fed back to encourage examination or reconciliation.
  • Third Party Observations: While I discourage mentors from actively seeking opinions about a protégé, a mentor will often encounter others’ impression of the protégé serendipitously. These impressions can either bolster a protégé’s efforts to develop or give insight into how their own impressions differ from others’. Caution should be taken with this kind of feedback, as it inserts the mentor more directly into the protégé’s situation, eroding the mentor’s role as an outside ally. Also, the mentor should encourage the protégé to get her or his own feedback from the third party to avoid the informational loss that comes from hearsay.

Using these sources of information, a mentor can help a protégé in many ways, including reinforcing progress the protégé is making, redirecting effort if the protégé’s efforts are not yielding desired results, or challenging the protégé’s assumptions. The steps outlined below can help a mentor give constructive feedback to a protégé:

  1. Create a Climate of Identification: Corrective or challenging feedback is often difficult to hear because it often erodes self confidence, making a protégé think, “Am I the only idiot who did that?” Starting with, “I’ve been there, too”, if possible, can defuse some of that negative reaction.
  2. State the Rationale or Context: To help the protégé process the feedback, start by linking it to a developmental goal or to some issue with which he or she is dealing. This step helps the protégé see the bigger context before reacting to the feedback itself.
  3. Report on What is Observable: When giving the feedback, stick to what was seen or heard. Avoid giving your impression of the protégé’s or other’s state of mind. Doing so helps lessen the perceived judgment about the behavior and treats is as more neutral.
  4. Process for Meaning: Help the protégé think about the meaning behind the feedback and what implications it has for him or her. Not providing a forum to discuss the meaning may create more stress for the protégé and lead to a counterproductive reaction.
  5. Discuss Next Steps: Turn the feedback into positive action for the protégé. If the feedback is reinforcing, discuss ways to capitalize on success. If it is redirecting or challenging, talk about a new course of action. Or, the feedback might prompt the protégé to do more investigation and gather his or her own feedback from others.