For the longest time, workplace mentorship programmes involved pairing senior, and preferably elderly employees with their juniors.
By virtue of being older, the seniors, more often at the executive level, were more experienced and therefore had a lot to teach their younger colleagues.
But today's workplaces are quickly changing and now mentorship is no longer a top-down engagement.
The younger workers are also mentoring their seniors as the workplace demographic becomes more multi-generational with the entry of Generation Zs and millennials.
The practice called reverse mentorship is quickly gaining currency in organisations as employers seek to improve cohesion and efficiency.
Often, it takes the form of a one-way mentorship, with junior staff teaching specific skills or sharing information upwards, or it can be part of traditional mentorship structures, with both parties seeking to learn from each other.
Crispin Ochieng, a Human Resource (HR) manager currently in the hospitality industry shares that during the Covid-19 pandemic, many work tasks were being done remotely through digital platforms that are in meetings, training, marketing, and research.
“This generation would share their expertise (commonly, technology and digital media topics) with the senior colleague, who may be less familiar with these areas. Virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom and Teams were incorporated into the mentoring programmes by the junior mentors,” he says.
But implementing reverse mentoring programmes has not been without challenges.
Some seniors feel it is demeaning as they have challenges with taking advice from someone lower in the organisation hierarchy.
On the flip side, a more junior executive who might be younger may not feel comfortable giving feedback or challenging the thinking of someone who could potentially tank their career.
How can reverse mentoring then happen without stepping on toes?
Mr Crispin advises that setting guidelines, and parameters for all of the mentoring relationships is the best way to ensure its success.
"With most seniors known for issuing orders but not necessarily taking feedback, as a mentoring administrator, it is important to help your executive mentees prepare for and be open to accepting feedback from their junior mentors," says Mr Crispin.
This, he adds can better take shape and form from the top where the CEOs and other leading executives model that behaviour.
“All good mentoring relationships employ a degree of accountability on one’s actions, promises, and commitments.”
Reverse mentoring is inculcated not for the juniors to brag about something they know or demean the experience of their seniors.
With this in mind, carrying out the role given without respect may not achieve the intended purpose of the mentorship.
Additionally, being willing to learn will spearhead an effective reverse mentorship.
“Senior leaders must be humble enough to set aside their perceptions of authority and privilege brought on by age and experience for the benefits, knowledge, and guidance of someone younger,” he observes.
Organisations that do not foster reverse mentorship can incorporate it by first developing an elaborate plan.
Mercy Mwirigi, a certified Professional Mediator shares that defining the objective or the motivation behind introducing the programme is crucial to bring everyone on board.
“Clarifying the benefits or value the programme will bring to the participants and the organisation while taking into account the needs of the mentees. It is important to collect data and learn/benchmark with other institutions to get insights for successful implementation,” she adds.
Obtaining top management approval of the programme and them (managers) communicating the decision to introduce it will ensure a smooth transition.
Also, designing the mentorship programme by providing detailed guidelines of what it will entail, training, and sensitising all stakeholders goes a long way.
Reverse mentoring can help expand the diversity of thinking in the workplace – an increased priority in today's multi-generational workplaces.
“It improves skills leading to a pool of talent within the organisation,” Ms Mercy notes.
Additionally, it encourages teamwork and meaningful relationships, breaking communication barriers and inspiring a sense of purpose in younger people.
With reverse mentoring promoting personal and career development, it provides a haven for young employees in the office spaces.
This is in light of their skills and performance being improved hence making them easily identifiable for promotions and other opportunities for growth in an organization.
“Furthermore, employees being recognized as mentors help develop a greater sense of responsibility and purpose.”
Accordingly, companies that listen to younger generations and ultimately build a workplace that better reflects younger generations' priorities are generally better positioned to retain talented millennials and Gen Z staff – a goal that reverse mentoring can help facilitate.
Though reverse mentorship has evolved to address complex modern work challenges, at the bottom of it are old-fashioned ideas of mutual understanding and respect that make the workplace better.