Approaches to coaching and mentoring

Directive mentoring and coaching

A directive approach involves a transfer of wisdom, where the mentor or coach provides advice or direction, probably based on their experience and expertise. This is a widely-recognised, fairly traditional approach.

Advantages include:

  • mentee benefits from shared experience
  • mentee benefits from mentors' hindsight
  • mentee can be given a solution
  • mentor feels rewarded by sharing wisdom.

Disadvantages of directive approach:

  • mentee has less ownership of outcomes
  • mentee may be less committed to action
  • the solution might not be ‘right'.

Non-directive mentoring and coaching

A non-directive approach allows the recipient to formulate their own solutions and actions as a result of skilled listening and questioning from the mentor or coach. 

Advantages of non-directive approach for the mentor or coach:

  • mentor/coach does not need to be an expert in the field
  • mentor/coach is open-minded and asks open questions
  • mentee/coachee has ownership of the solution
  • mentee/coachee has greater commitment to action
  • the solution is more likely to be ‘right'.

Disadvantages could be:

  • longer time to reach an outcome
  • missed opportunity to benefit from another's experience
  • mentee/coachee may simply want to be given the answer.

A balance between these two extremes is likely to be the best. The balance will shift depending on the issue and the experience of the mentor or coach and the mentee or coachee, as illustrated by case study examples of non-directive and directive approaches [PDF].

Either of these approaches could be adopted in a formal or informal context.

Formal and informal contexts

Many universities have formal schemes for mentoring researchers, typically involving some of the following:

  • training to prepare mentors and mentees
  • matching of pairs according to their needs, skills and experience
  • encouraging agreement of ground rules and boundaries
  • providing third party support
  • offering a framework for a learning contract
  • agreeing levels of confidentiality.

There is evidence that matching  mentors to mentees increases the success of mentoring, and tends to work best if the mentor is external or in a different department to the mentee, to avoid a conflict of interest.

Mentoring or coaching in an informal context is also common, e.g. a researcher could approach a more experienced researcher or their PI for advice or support. There may be no formal ground rules or boundaries, although it is likely that confidentiality will be expected, and some shared sense of the purpose of the relationship. The mentoring or coaching could be short or long-term and might involve:

  • support in developing confidence with an area of work
  • learning a new skill
  •  making useful connections and expanding networks
  • discussing career direction.

You may also be interested in pages on  mentoring and coaching skills.