The Mentors Way Rule #6: Foster Accountability

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

mentoring accountabilityThis post is the sixth in the series The Mentor’s Way, a set of guides for mentors who want to bring out the best in others.

Up until this point, most of the Rules of Mentoring have focused on building trust with a protégé and exploring Hands, Head, and Heart issues. As you saw in the last post (Rule #5: Balance Empathy and Action), the power of mentoring is realized when the protégé begins to take action based on the mentoring conversations. This step, however, can be a stumbling block for many protégés, as the challenges they are facing begin to go from conceptual to concrete. They are moving from talking about an issue to doing something about it. At this point, reality sets in for many protégés, and you see many taking only tentative steps toward change, while others fail to act at all.

Not every protégé struggles taking action, and not for every issue. Hands issues, ones that have a clear course of action and that post little risk to the protégé, do not present the hurdle that many Head and Heart issues do. There are many things that keep a protégé from taking action on the plans crafted with a mentor:

  • Habit. If the protégé is trying to change a situation, it should be presumed that the protégé already has some established pattern of acting that needs to change. For instance, if a protégé needs to speak up more in meetings to have her voice heard, she already has an established habit of not doing so. While a great conversation with a mentor can generate enthusiasm and confidence in the safe confines of a mentoring conversation, it may have a harder time overcoming a well worn habit of not doing so. It is just easier to continue with the existing pattern than to try to break it and establish a new one.
  • Fear. Beyond that habit of continuing a pattern, many protégés are held back by fear of the unknown. By speaking up more in the meetings, the protégé is not sure how others will react. Will they take her seriously? Will more dominant members of the group shut her back down? Will she speak up and come across as ridiculous? These fears can start to well up when the protégé is in the situation, away from the safe conversation with a mentor, and become new stumbling blocks.
  • Confidence. Beyond the fear of changing the situation, the protégé may also lack the confidence to make the change. This confidence can be about the new strategy itself or about the protégé’s ability to execute the strategy. If the protégé is frustrated by not having her voice heard, is speaking up in meetings the right way to go? Nagging doubts about the strategy may undermine the protégé’s efforts and cause them to derail. Further, even if speaking up is the right way to go, does the protégé feel confident in her ability to do so effectively? If confidence in either the strategy or the protégé’s skills falters, the attempt may fall apart the first time she tries to make the change.

The mentor’s best tool to helping a protégé overcome the inertia of habit or the barriers fear or lack of confidence present is to foster supportive accountability to act. By asking about the steps the protégé is taking and showing support, the mentor can help the protégé climb over many of these barriers. There are several ways mentors can go about fostering accountability:

  • Articulate the steps. In a mentoring conversation, the protégé may discuss what he needs to do differently to effect a different outcome. However, this discussion may fail to yield any concrete actions, instead staying at the conceptual level of what the protégé “ought to do.” Before you finish a meeting with a protégé, ask the question, “What do you think you can do between now and when we meet next to make progress?” Listing out concrete steps increases the likelihood that the protégé takes action.
  • Ask about the steps. The often subtle accountability of a mentor often has its power when a mentor asks about the steps at the next meeting. Doing so signals to the protégé that he has made a commitment not just to himself but to his mentor. Such social pressure can create a subtle but strong impetus to take action and spur a protégé to overcome inertia.
  • Explore unstated barriers. Fear and lack of confidence often have at their heart unexplored barriers that lie deep in the Heart conversation. The protégé may not have surfaced the deeper concerns he has about the issue upon the initial discussion. If a protégé fails to act several times, it can be useful to go back to asking the Heart questions to help unearth them.
  • Praise progress. If a change is truly difficult, the protégé may not be successful the first time trying a new behavior. The protégé who wants to speak up more in meetings may not have success the first time. Instead of focusing on what went wrong initially, praise the attempt. Acknowledge that the attempt may have been difficult and that you are proud of the steps that had been taken. Some issues may require several runs a them before the protégé makes progress.
  • Show patience. Progress on difficult issues rarely goes smoothly. It can take several attempts to break through barriers that a protégé has erected. Recognize that part of being a supportive mentor is showing patience while encouraging a protégé. Giving up early may miss a big opportunity.
  • Plan for setbacks. Finally, it can be useful to plan for eventual setbacks. Recognize that speaking up in one meeting won’t change things overnight for a protégé who has been silent for years. She is just as likely to return to old habits when stress goes up. Recognize that and talk about what to do when they occur. And, when they have occurred, show support and encouragement to get going again.

Making progress on difficult Head and Heart issues can be slow. If it were easy, the protégé would have already done it and you wouldn’t be discussing it. Fostering supportive accountability can help a protégé make progress and really harness the power of mentoring. After that, you can start to explore the other tools at your disposal as a mentor as you Fill the Toolkit, which is explored in the next post.

To comment on this article or to learn more about mentoring, contact Rik Nemanick at