Why Safety Matters in Business Mentoring

Safety Is Another Differentiator Between Coaching and Mentoring


When researching mentoring topics, you'll encounter many articles about things like creating effective matches, setting reasonable expectations, and learning how to communicate better. You'll discover hot topics, such as the difference between coaching and mentoring and the types of mentoring models that an organization can implement (e.g. one-to-one mentoring).  


Unfortunately, however, an important topic exists that has been mostly overlooked in the available literature, and that topic is safety.

Safety, Defined
According to Merriam-Webster Online, safety "is the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss." It's important to note that "hurt" and "injury" include both physical and emotional realms. For the purpose of this article, we're focusing on the emotional aspects.

What Does Safety Have to Do with Mentoring?
Safety is one of the key differentiators between coaching and mentoring. In coaching, creating a "safe" environment might not even be necessary since a coach is often brought in for remedial work with the coachee. This coach is expected to improve the coachee's performance in a specific area, and results are measured.  


For example, a junior team member who needs to learn a new piece of software might be coached by a senior team member. The need for creating an emotionally safe environment is not necessary, since the work is straightforward: learn the software.

Mentoring, on the other hand, is never remedial and is primarily a developmental relationship, one where feelings, thoughts, and emotions come into play. While coaching may occur to some extent over nine to 12 months, the goal of mentoring is to create a meaningful relationship between the mentor and mentoree.  


While the relationship will result in specific outcomes in terms of skill sets or knowledge, it seeks to move beyond that by engaging the mentoree in honest discussions about those aspects of his or her personality that hinder or help his or her career and personal success. In order for these honest discussions to take place, both the mentor and mentoree must feel safe--safe with one another, safe in the overall environment, and safe from, as the definition above states, "undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss."

What's the Main Benefit of a Safe Mentoring Environment?
A safe mentoring environment fosters trust, one of the key elements in an effective mentoring relationship. It's important for the mentoring program manager (MPM) to encourage the mentor and mentoree to jointly create an environment whereby both can share the "real" issues and the "real" obstacles they have or are encountering. When mentors and mentorees feel safe and trust one another to share these sorts of thoughts and experiences, true transformation can take place--for both of them.

It's always thrilling when I evaluate mentoring programs and hear mentors and mentorees use words like powerful, enriching, changed my life, helped me to be a better version of who I really am. Only in a safe mentoring environment can you expect to hear these sorts of statements.

Fostering Safety in Your Mentoring Programs
The best way to foster a safe environment is by talking about the safety dynamic. As mentors and mentorees get started, both should be educated on the concept. Items for discussion should include:

  • The definition of safety: what it is, what it isn't, and what it means in a mentoring relationship.
  • Confidentiality issues, including expectations. Both parties need to respect confidentiality and understand its boundaries and limitations. Regarding limitations, here's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point: when a mentoree talks about issues she's having with a difficult manager, the mentor should keep this information confidential. But a mentoree who says she's going to retaliate in a physical way against a difficult manager? The mentor should NOT keep this information confidential. In this case, the mentor should seek outside support (starting with the mentoring program manager).
  • When the presence of the mentoring program manager is necessary.
  • Tips for negotiating difficult/sensitive topics.

Remember, a safe mentoring environment can lead to true transformation for mentors and mentorees and, ultimately, your organization.

As always, if you have questions or need more guidance, don't hesitate to contact us.

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