Coaching and mentoring: avoiding confusion

Source: NHE May/June 2018

Dr Darren Leech, director at NHS Elect, discusses the key differences between being a coach and a mentor, and explains how leaders can make use of both tools to provide the ideal leadership style.

Mentoring and coaching are two quite different things. Misunderstanding and misuse can lead to conflict and confusion, despite the best intentions of those involved. So, what is coaching and what is mentoring?

A mentor offers experience and expertise in their field of practice. They provide insight, advice and guidance and, where they cannot, they connect their protégé to other experts within their professional network. The mentoring relationship is often longer-term and career-based, or it is specific to a professional development programme. In some instances, there will be a competency-based ‘pass/fail’ element to the relationship. A mentor is usually senior in terms of experience and hierarchy. Protégés working with a mentor are normally motivated to gain knowledge or improve their skills, as they are beyond the need for basic instruction.

One of the potential pitfalls with mentoring and advice-giving as the ‘default’ style for any leader is a culture of dependency that consequentially develops around them. This risk leads to a lack of creativity, with colleagues not seeing the generation or contribution of new ideas as part of their role. They will escalate problems more frequently for resolution or permission and, as a result, the leader becomes swamped with low-level tasks, clouding their ability to concentrate on wider aspects of their role.

A coach is not an expert in the field in which their coachee works. Therefore, a good coach does not offer advice. They assume that their coachee is resourceful, motivated and has the energy and desire to work through and resolve problems they might face. The coaching relationship is one of equals. The coach asks insightful, open and often challenging questions to help the coachee reflect and work through their challenges. The conversation will conclude with the coachee having clear actions that they – not the coach – have devised and committed to doing.

Coaching is a more time-consuming approach in the short term when contrasted to mentoring. And the use of coaching with junior, inexperienced team members who often need to know simply ‘what’ or ‘how’ can undermine their confidence, as they do not have the knowledge or ability to generate ideas and actions for themselves.

Delegation and direction

Directing, mentoring, coaching and delegating make up the four primary leadership tools in the classic ‘situational leadership’ model. The most effective leaders will weigh up the task and the level of support an individual requires and adapt their approach accordingly.

Telling people what to do is often perceived negatively, but in emergency situations where time is of the essence, or circumstances where someone is new to the environment or task, clear direction is often very helpful and gratefully received. That  said,  trying to direct someone who believes that they already know what to do usually results in conflict.

When an individual is experienced and expert in their field of work and a problem or challenge is directly related, any intervention other than delegation can prove frustrating. Leaders who recognise competence in their team and use delegation will often benefit from having more time,  the  contribution of ideas, and good engagement from their team.

So what?

The following questions might be useful to those who like to read, reflect on and develop their practice as a manager or leader:

  • Are you always clear in your use of the terms mentoring and coaching?
  • Do you check with colleagues to avoid any misunderstanding when mentoring or coaching is discussed?
  • If a conversation doesn’t go how you’d have liked it to, do you ask yourself if a contributing factor may have been your use of the wrong leadership approach?
  • Do you know your own natural preference in terms of leadership style – and that of others who work around you?


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