The Opposite of Mentoring

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Talking Trash

Alright, I’ve had enough.  Everybody out of the sandbox.  I’ve been seeing (for the past 20 years) what I’ve come to recognize as the complete opposite of mentoring.  Its useless, it is damaging, it is definitely going on around you, and it is killing your production.  If mentoring is: to serve as a trusted counselor or teacher, particularly in an occupational setting (from – sorry) – Then surely openly complaining about someone is:  to serve only as a hindrance to a persons growth and learning by sharing their perceived deficiencies with everyone but them. (from me)

The practice of talking bad about a co-worker..or your boss..or say – an entire department of people at your company –  while commonly and incorrectly accepted as “venting” – is actually an extremely damaging act to play out on other members of your team.  This is particularly true if (say it isn’t so) the person doing to behind-the-back trash-talking is a supervisor (at any level).  The mistake – and man, it’s a big one –  has more than a few latent effects on the listeners and complainers alike.

The effect on the person you’re talking about is obvious.  When you talk poorly about a anyone’s performance, you are deliberately trying to infect the listener with the same attitude about the person that you have.  Without even knowing it, those who hear your complaints – to some degree – will treat the person with just a little less respect.  If he or she did have a deficiency that you noticed that needed some work, you are one step farther away from helping them fix the problem.  If you are making the HUGE leadership mistake of doing this in front of subordinates, you are giving them permission to do the same…about anyone…(including you, by the way).  It is an insidious, respect-robbing trap that is hard to pull yourself out of:  Here’s how it works:

You talk bad about Dave to the guys in the office.  The guys in the office, some of whom really like Dave, immediately think you’re an idiot for talking bad about him to his friends (if the shoe fits).  Those who don’t know much about Dave, along with his friends, are either thinking a little less of Dave or a little less of you; and they are all thinking a little less of where they work. They all know that if you are willing to  talk bad about Dave to them, then there is no reason for them to believe that you aren’t talking bad about them to everyone else?  (none) – All of this gives the listeners permission to talk bad about you when you aren’t around; to continue the trash about Dave; and in the end you have accomplished nothing but bad things.  They get worse when Dave’s friends tell him about what you said (and they DEFINITELY will).  Now, your team member Dave is looking at you and KNOWS you don’t really like him much, or think bad things about him, but didn’t care enough to offer him any advice.  The chance of getting him to ask you for advice is now ZIP, and he continues doing whatever it is you thought was wrong in the first place.

Sound like a good idea?  Didn’t think so.

This  chain-of-errors  happens when you talk bad about a group in much the same way, but with one additional sticky-wicket for the offending basher:  Groups have a loyalty that goes beyond the individual.  Spend a tour talking trash about a guy, the behavior is damaging mostly at the local business unit level,  But talk bad about a group (“Those HR weenies this” or “Systems Engineering that“…and my personal favorite “Those idiots at HQ”) and that stuff will get to your next job before you do. (See article on “Trust” )

So what do we do?:

Well if the problem is, you know, you..then (deep breath) ….stop it.  Quit talking about and start talking to our guy, Dave.  You are missing an opportunity to do something that – you know – you get paid to do which is to help him improve.  True venting about a personnel problem is o.k.,  just make sure you’re the lowest ranked guy in the room (or at least tied for last place). If you find yourself listening to a discouraging word about your friend (or another person on the team….or a group on the team)   then interject with something disarming like, “Did you tell him (them) about your concerns?”  or, “Is there anything I can do to help you overcome your fear of conflict?”  or my favorite, “Are you telling me and not him (them) because you are afraid he (they)  might change your mind a prove that the real problem is you?”  (That one is just plain fun.)  When someone under you comes to you with a complaint about a co-worker, that’s cool.  Just don’t enter the bash session.  Your job is to calm them down and help them understand what they can do to effect a positive change.

Look, If if you work in a local pizza shop, I’d say complain away (those darn dough flippers think they are so cool..sniff), but that’s not what most of you do; most of you do serious work with missions that effect the lives of real people (not that Pizza doesn’t change lives) . The people sitting next to you need to (and want to) trust you.  It’s just a better life for everyone if they do.   All you do when you chose to “anti-mentor” is rob yourself of that trust  and them of their joy at work.   Now play nice –  back to the sandbox.

Disclaimer:  If this article made you angry, it’s o.k.  It’s only because you’re guilty.  Change.

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By | 2017-05-18T15:30:02+00:00 February 20th, 2009|General Leadership|10 Comments

About the Author:

  • This is my whole world right now. But the thing that keeps me up at night is this: Let's say that I'm not the problem (or that I have recognized my anti-mentoring and put a stop to it) what can we do to affect the same change in those around us? How do we help end the cycle without saying, "Hey Dude-that-signs-my-paychecks — you're being rude and no one respects you nearly as much as you think we do because of it." Because, you know.. that ain't gonna fly. Well, it might… straight out the window.

  • Ahh, Number 1 – you pose an interesting question: and you're going to hate the answer – Correcting the boss requires a certain courage that can only come from a position of personal power. What I mean is, you have to not care at all if he gets mad and throws you out the window. You are trying to offer him good advice – if he's the kind of person who would fire you for that, you should run (not walk) to the exit on your own. After that – just be courteous. Talk to him sincerely, talk to him in private, and talk to him as if you know he doesn't intend to act in a way that is damageing to morale. He doesn't, of course. If you are not ready for that approach (and I can understand) then try this: As soon as you get a sniff that he is talking trash about someone on the team, immediately say something positive about that person; say three things positive about them. If he doesn't soften up immediately and stop the negative attack – hand him your company ID and run for that door.

  • Ah. The things we know but don't want to.

  • Marcia McLean

    Was it Drucker who said that 99% of the problems in companies are at the management level? If he didn't say that, he should have. So, point one, maybe managers should be a bit less thin-skinned.

    Second point: most political trash talking happens in offices, which tells you there's something wrong with offices and maybe white-collar workers should make it a better world by telecommuting. Would have a huge positive impact on energy consumption and waste.

    Third: I get nervous when experts express discomfort with confrontation and criticism. It's like that great line from "The Women": "No one knows how to argue any more; I should start a school."

    Last, there was a study published recently in which "leaders" emerged based not on the value of their ideas but on how much they talked. Maybe a little more listening and a lot less self-defensiveness might be a good thing.

    After all, American business hasn't exactly covered itself in laurels recently. Isn't it time to rethink some of these old assumptions about not questioning, not criticizing, even not "bad mouthing"? Maybe kicking some self-satisfied, pompous executive butt would be a good thing for everyone.

  • Hmmm, while I agree that conflict and confrontation can very often have positive effects on an organization, I really can't think of a single instance where badmouthing someone, your boss, peer or subordinate could have a positive outcome. In my experience, it becomes such a distraction that it can cause a complete productivity breakdown with in the organization. Now, I'd be lying if I said that I've never engaged in it at early points in my career. Heck, it's only human nature. But as I got older and more experienced I tried to refrain from it for just the reasons Mario lays out above.

    Marcia, thanks for visiting and sharing your valuable food for thought with us.

  • I agree with everything you said, Marcia. Its just that your comments were about listening and self-defensiveness; neither one of those things are even possible if the person you're talking about isn't in the room when you say them. Being self-defensive is a bad thing, I agree. But, not having the backbone to air your grievences to the person you have a problem with…. That is far worse. (…and it's almost always caused by personal insecurity)


  • Marcia McLean

    Mario, you make a good point about airing grievances directly: I agree with you.

    I've been the person gossiped about both as a manager and as a co-worker, and at no time was the situation handled as constructively as it could have been.

    Nonetheless, I was expected to learn and to grow from these experiences, and I did – without the help of a support network either at work or at home. So, why shouldn't everyone else be expected to do the same? Isn't a run through the gauntlet expected, especially of people who aspire to management?

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  • Marcia –

    You may have learned from those experiences – but you weren't expected to. The people who gossiped about you had no desire at all to teach you anything. That you did learn something is a testament to your attitude, but that doesn't mean it is the preferred method of teaching.

    The world (and the businesses we engage in) provides plenty of "gauntlet" opportunities to make it through without the leaders of the team adding their own. Don’t ever confuse making things harder with making them better – simply because the harder part leaves scars – and that makes them tougher. It may do so, as it did in your case – but I guarantee it makes the team weaker.


    PS – if you dont get support from the team at home, then you aren't really at home yet.

  • Marcia McLean

    Mario, thanks for your wise and compassionate answer. I noticed from your profile that you are a Coastie, which makes you a hero in more ways than one. I have enormous respect for what you do. Thanks for taking the time to share your insights, I hope others have learned from our correspondence; I certainly have.

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