The Wall Street Journal reports that reverse mentoring has finally cracked the workplace so that senior executives can learn more about technology, social media and the latest workplace trends. Great idea, but reverse mentoring won’t work. It violates the very premise of a social media environment that it purports to address. Mentoring must be about a two-way flow of information and respect. What organizations need is collaborative mentoring.
Reverse mentoring is exactly the wrong way to think about knowledge exchange in an organization. We live in a time of social networks and peer-to-peer connectivity. Calling it reverse mentoring implicitly supports the linear and uni-directional exchange of information and existing organizational hierarchies. Reverse mentoring won’t work because it challenges not only the existing hierarchy but essentially tells someone who spent years developing skills that it’s not good enough. Whether that’s true or not, it’s not how you encourage growth except maybe in the armed forces. The mentoring needs to be a relationship and a bi-directional exchange — it needs to be collaborative mentoring.
I understand need to tap into the knowledge of tech-savvy employees (presumed to be younger) to bring those less technically-inclined (presumed to be older) up to speed with a ubiquitous technology world. In the process of embracing this new culture of social technologies and social connectedness, it’s important to remember two things:
- It is not about the tools; it’s a cultural shift
- People’s identities are at stake
As the Wall Street Journal points out, some executives “bristle” at the thought of being mentored by someone younger, creating the Rodney Dangerfield response. Is there no respect? The question is really: is there no respect for me? Because massive change, like we’ve had with social media, is a threat to our identity — it challenges our core assumptions about how the world works and our place in it. It’s not surprising that there is a bit of discomfort and fear when it comes to new technology, particularly in the hierarchies of organizations.
This question of respect impacts pretty much everyone born before about 1985, who used to show up at the office feeling fairly competent and accomplished. We worked hard and we knew stuff from all the years of slogging along. We had what Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe calls “wisdom guided by experience.” Now it feels like somebody is changing the rules as the world goes digital, mobile and interconnected. It’s like showing up to play golf with a baseball bat.
The tools are just the symptoms of a larger shift in people’s expectations about connection, access, and the time-space continuum. We are talking about colliding cultures. Like any good organizational psychologist will tell you, the cultures have to gain an appreciation for each other and what they bring to the party. Reverse mentoring won’t work if you view it as having the young dogs teach the old dogs new tricks. The key to all transactions is, as Aretha would say, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and it needs to flow both ways. Teaching executives to use technology isn’t the same thing as integrating invaluable and hard-won wisdom and experience into social technologies and the new psychological environment they have spawned. That will take collaborative mentoring, not reverse mentoring.