It has taken a long time but suddenly business leaders have started to listen to what HR has been telling them for decades – it’s time to get serious about diversity. Among the problems in taking this beyond rhetoric, however, is that traditional recipes, such as implicit bias training, don’t work. The reason they don’t work is that these are abstract, intellectual exercises, about generalised groups, rather than concrete engagements with real individuals. Hence the increasing interest in reciprocal mentoring.
Previously known as reverse mentoring, the principle of bringing together junior employees from diverse backgrounds with senior executives from the dominant culture in a co-learning relationship is now more commonly referred to as reciprocal mentoring. The more junior person acts as mentor to the more senior to help them grow in awareness of how privilege, bias and systemic barriers affect career opportunities and day-to-day experiences. In this learning partnership, the junior employee gains insights into their own self-limiting assumptions, as well as into the practical aspects of building a career in the organisation — including how to work within the corporate politics.
Increasing experience with reciprocal mentoring shows that it provides a safe space, where both parties can confront their own perceptions, beliefs and behaviours. The quality of the connection between the top and bottom of the organisation exposes institutional barriers and enables a greater level of collaboration in bringing about meaningful change – a dramatically different situation from the norm, where executives talk to and develop their world view mainly in conversation with their own peers; and where less privileged communities also talk mainly within their own circles and where their potential may be limited by lack of awareness of how other, more influential stakeholders perceive the world.
There is also greater clarity about what makes an effective reciprocal mentoring program. Among key lessons learned are:
- The critical importance of educating both parties in creating a “power-free” environment and relationship. The junior partner has to be comfortable with speaking up and challenging; the executive has to be aware of how their own power can get in the way of authentic, open conversation – and actively work towards making sure that it doesn’t.
- Both parties need guidance in learning how to become vulnerable towards each other. The anxieties each person has about the other are often subconscious, yet highly influential, so knowing how to bring these into the spoken conversation is vital to the co-learning process.
- It’s important for top management, program participants and other stakeholders to have clarity about the program purpose – in particular, the intended outcomes and how these align with organisational values. Where minority networks have a visible hand in writing the terms of reference, this heightens credibility of the program and the energy that participants put into the learning relationships.
- Both parties need training, even if they have previous experience of mentoring. This might typically involve initial workshops and follow up events a few months later to provide additional training input around issues that arise from participant feedback.
- Both parties typically need ongoing support. The co-learning conversations require them to challenge both each other and themselves, so it’s common for one or both to undergo a crisis of confidence at some point. With appropriate support — such as having a forum where they can seek both expert guidance and peer acknowledgement — is where the deepest and most significant learning occurs.
Although we don’t as yet have any strong academic studies of the impact of reciprocal mentoring, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. Wherever a program has been well-designed and supported (two essential criteria), both sets of participants point to it as one of the most significant learning interventions of their careers. Current research should fill the data gap over the next 12 months, but it seems that these honest conversations do much more than change the perspectives of the individuals taking part. They provide a platform for challenging the prevailing culture and the systems that underpin it; and for replacing limiting opacity with liberating clarity.
© David Clutterbuck 2021