Imagine your mentoree comes to you and says something like: “I have these things I need to get done and I’m struggling to get there. I’d really find it helpful if you could hold me accountable on these tasks and projects.”
Sometimes the exercise of accountability in mentoring relates to external givens; standards that your mentoree is required to adhere to by an authority structure. In that case they might ask you to keep them honest on those matters. But in this case your mentoree is asking you to help them achieve goals that they have set themselves and which, hopefully, they believe God is calling them to.
If you’re like me, with an understanding that Christian mentoring is primarily about who you are rather than what you do, you might wonder if it would be valid to get into this sort of accountability over specific actions. Bear in mind that there are four elements in play with a mentoree’s formation: desire, identity, thinking and action. Jesus called attention to these when he affirmed the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And while he certainly taught a kingdom ethic that placed priority on the condition and orientation of the human heart – the ‘who you are’ piece – it’s also true that action has a shaping effect on the heart. That is to say that behaviour emerges from character and character is formed by behaviour. ‘Being’ and ‘doing’ is a two-way street. So, I suggest it is valid for mentors to get into accountability over specific actions and behaviours as a mechanism for getting at character formation.
Another question that might occur to you in response to this approach from your mentoree is what they are hoping is going to happen by getting you involved in their desire to get things done. What difference will it make to include these matters in your mentoring conversations? In his classic book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey presents a grid for analysing the tasks that people deal with, categorising them according to their importance and urgency. Relatively less important tasks fall into quadrants 3 (more urgent) and 4 (less urgent). Important tasks that are also urgent fall into quadrant 1 while important tasks that are not urgent fall into quadrant 2. Covey’s observation is that people at work attend to things according to their urgency rather than their importance, and when relaxing deal only with less-important matters. This leads to the neglect of quadrant 2. In mentoring I find that when people seek accountability on tasks, they are most often dealing with quadrant 2 – more-important, less-urgent matters. What the mentoree is trying to do – consciously or unconsciously – is to bump their problematic tasks from quadrant 2 to quadrant 1. Applying the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ (a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed), your involvement increases the urgency. And that’s useful.
If you decide to go ahead and help your mentoree in the way they are asking you’ll need to exercise caution around the five chief ways that accountability can go wrong in mentoring:
- Controlling. In the scenario I presented, at least the mentoree is taking the initiative to come up with the points of accountability. It would be truly horrible if you, as the mentor, were to say, “You know what’s wrong with you? You’re not getting stuff done. I’m going to give you some homework and I’ll be checking in next time to make sure you’ve done it.” But even with the mentoree putting things on the table it’s possible to go at it too hard and end up like a drill sergeant. Healthy checking in maintains interest without intimidation.
- Neglectful. The opposite failure is to be weak in the exercise of accountability, either forgetting to raise the matters you’ve been asked to check in on, or choosing to avoid the topics because you’re afraid of embarrassing the mentoree or appearing too tough. In both of these ways you let your mentoree down. It’s not being faithful to your role.
- Vague. Accountability needs sharp focus to be healthy. First, you’ll need clear, specific agreement on intended actions, or it won’t be possible to celebrate success or to properly investigate why a person didn’t follow through. Second, you’ll need to ask precise questions about the matters for accountability, not merely hint at them.
- Off-target. Beware of ‘accountability drift’, where you are tempted to ask whether the person did the thing you thought they should do rather than the action they actually committed to. Accurately capture the points of accountability nominated by your mentoree in written form and don’t simply rely on either your memory or your mentoree’s.
- Inflexible. Don’t keep hammering away at the same accountability questions without doing some tweaking. Mentoring conversations offer an opportunity to continually grow and develop understanding of how God is working in a person’s life. Accountability must not remain tethered to the insights that were available at a particular moment in time. Reflection on unfolding circumstances will normally require adaptation on points of accountability.
Once you’ve made sure you’re engaging in accountability positively from your position as mentor, what are the things to look out for in your mentoree? Here are eight factors that might hinder them from getting things done and some suggestions about what you can do to help overcome those obstacles.
- Overwhelmed. If your mentoree is attempting too many things at once, suggest they use Dave Allen’s ‘4Ds’ exercise – Do, Delegate, Delay, Dump. Urge them to consider what else they could take out of their ‘Do’ bucket and put in another bucket to reduce the load.
- Over-ambitious. Do you sense they are trying to run before they can walk? Ask questions about how a complex task could be broken down into smaller steps or a high standard of excellence could be attained gradually by starting with modest improvements.
- Defeated. A history of past failures can set a person up to feel beaten before they begin. Pay attention to what is different this time. If there’s not much different, consider what fresh factors could be injected to tip the balance.
- Disorganised. Is your mentoree lacking a plan or unfamiliar with the mechanics of personal organisation? Could they be helped by keeping a diary, making lists, setting reminders, having a weekly planning session, or rearranging regular commitments?
- Distracted. If their time and energy has not been going into the things they want to get done, where has it been going? Help them to recognise the things that distract them and the early warning signs when this is happening. Then help them design strategies for staying on track.
- Unsupported. Is your mentoree trying to get difficult things done without backup? Or are they lacking the proper resources? Ask what tools or materials would help in getting the job done. Would brief contacts to/from you between sessions provide crucial encouragement? Could an extra person besides you come alongside to lend a hand at key moments?
- Unimaginative. Has your mentoree run out of creative ideas for getting a project finished? Try stimulating their imagination with brainstorming, recommended reading, introductions to resourceful contacts of yours, telling stories of related scenarios, suggested pathways for online research, right brain activities like visualisation and artistic expression.
- Unmotivated. What if your mentoree says, “I don’t want to do that anymore”? If the flame of motivation has been totally extinguished, you’re probably done with that point of accountability. But if there is a tiny spark of motivation remaining you might fan it into flame by going back to the beginning and reviewing the reasons why they thought this action was a good idea in the first place.
The exercise of accountability for tasks and projects is a wonderful gift to offer someone when it truly helps them to love God with all their strength. Then it is not just about getting things done; it’s about practical, obedient cooperation with God’s transformative work and seeing His vision for that person’s life realised.