Mentoring is NOT Therapy

by Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D. CEO, Goldsmith Consulting
Copyright Barton Goldsmith 2002

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Have you ever had to deal with a team member's emotional or personal problems? It's normal for a Mentor/Manager to spend time dealing with their co-workers problems, but when those problems become emotional; you may feel (rightfully so) that you really don't want to deal with these kinds of problems. You may also feel that you are "out of your league". If a staff member's problems made you feel uncomfortable, it's a sign that you need to refer them to, or bring in, a professional counselor.

Counseling is NOT in Your Job Description

It is not your job to be a therapist to your team members. Spending your time dealing with people problems has its limits. Although we have all had to deal with unexpected emotions like tears, silence or outright anger, it really should not be part of your duties. What is in the Mentors/Manager's job description is having the ability and insight to know when to leave it to the pros.

Because Mentoring is becoming a large part of our contemporary business culture, many consultants have added Executive Coaching to their repertoire. In addition, numerous psychotherapists (most with no business experience) have also become "Executive Coaches". Where Mentoring and Coaching are similar to each other, counseling is a completely different line of work. It involves dealing with people's emotions and helping to heal their neurosis. Just because someone calls himself or herself a coach, does not mean that they have the ability to counsel. Before you refer someone to counseling, make sure that the person they see has some training in psychology.

A Mentors Job

Being a Mentor means setting an example, listening to your team members, discussing their issues, and giving them leadership. Sometimes this means challenging them. A trained counselor understands that if you challenge someone who is emotionally vulnerable or unstable, they may breakdown right in front of you, and they are prepared and educated for that. In addition, they are cautious about challenging someone who is very angry or unable to articulate their thoughts. This is a possible sign of instability, and could lead to the person could acting out or even "going postal". This is why it's so important to understand the risks of counseling, and why a Mentor needs to stay within certain boundaries.

If someone comes to their Mentor with a work related issue, which may involve communication problems with a co-worker, it falls under a Mentor/Manager's job description to help them resolve the issue. If a staff member is asking for help with a domestic issue, a substance abuse problem, or controlling their anger, they should be referred to a counselor, or to your companies EAP (Employee Assistance Program), if you have one.

If a Mentor or Manager tries to deal with highly charged emotional issues, they could be putting themselves and the company at risk. They could also give inappropriate advice to the staff member and cause them personal harm.

Determining the Objectives

When a team member comes to you with an issue that you think may cross the personal/professional line, you must first determine their goal in bringing the issue to you. Do they just want to unload - to have someone listen to them? Do they need your help is dealing with a co-worker? Are they looking for advice or in need of counseling? Asking them directly what their objectives are can save both of you time and energy, not to mention grief.

Once you (and they) understand their needs, you can decide if this is an issue you are comfortable dealing with. If you are not comfortable, you need to be honest and direct them to someone who can help them deal with the issue. Don't just ignore it, it's part of your responsibility as a Mentor to help them locate assistance.

Responsibility and Benefits

Be careful not to fall into the Father/Mother confessor trap. Sometimes it is tempting to want to be the all-knowing Mentor and take on problems that you don't have the training to deal with. Mentors like to be helpful, it's part of what motivates them to take on the role. Sometimes Mentors don't want to admit that they may be in over their heads, and will continue to try to help a staff member without realizing they haven't got the skills. This isn't helpful to anyone, and it can result in actually making the problem worse and killing the Mentor/Mentee relationship.

Mentors have a responsibility to the people who come to them for guidance. This responsibility is one of the benefits of being a mentor; it makes them better leaders. Understanding boundaries and limitations gives the Mentor a greater ability to help others. It also allows them to grow personally and professionally.

For more than two decades Fortune 500 companies, educational institutions, and government organizations worldwide have relied on Dr. Barton Goldsmith to help them develop creative and balanced leadership. He is a highly sought-after keynote speaker, business consultant and author. His column "Passionate Leadership" appears in over 100 newspapers, magazines and trade publications, including the Los Angeles Business Journal. Dr. Goldsmith works regularly with The Young President's Organization (YPO) and The Executive Committee (TEC). Considered an expert on business, he has given over 2,000 professional presentations and has spoken to audiences worldwide. He can be contacted through his web site at