how can I back out of a mentoring relationship?

A reader writes:

I’m hoping you can help me with how to tail off a coaching situation. I’ve been working with someone for a year now; her supervisor doesn’t have listening or development skills, and they don’t get along because of frustration on both sides anyway.

It’s not a formal coaching relationship at all. She was clearly having problems communicating with her boss–and her boss with her–and I said, hey, I’m willing to work with you to figure out some ways to improve that relationship. We decided to meet weekly over lunch and during the first meeting, when I asked questions about the nature of their interactions, it became obvious that her boss was frustrated with everything about her work–quantity and quality. In asking her for more detail, it became glaringly obvious that her job skills were really lacking, and her boss just doesn’t have the managerial skills to help her build a skillset and work approach that would work for her.

I am used to mentoring/coaching relationships that discuss life experience, professional experience, advancement, life-juggling, networking, etc. Having to teach someone how to build and use a basic to-do list, mind details, prioritize (which I realize isn’t automatic–but the nature of this person’s job basically does the prioritization for her–it’s more about how to stop procrastinating), rebuild relationships and credibility with people after poor performance, recognize the difference between kicking up a dustcloud of effort and actually performing–on a weekly basis, which is how often we were meeting–is draining.

We last met three weeks ago, and based on what I’ve come to know about her, I had an a-ha! moment about a basic approach to her job that I thought might work for her. We discussed it at length and worked out some bulleted steps and reminder systems that I hoped would start to retrain her brain. Over the next week or so, she pinged me occasionally to rave about how it was helping–that’s tailed off a bit now, and I’ve been busy, so I haven’t checked in much.

I told her that she needed to work with this new approach at the front of her mind for a month, and then we’d talk about her impressions of how it was working for her and make any tweaks that might be necessary. That will be next week. I’m fully committed to that check-in and the tweaks, if any are needed, but after that, I am completely out of ideas about how to help any further. I’ve kept my boss updated–he’s the one with ultimate hire/fire/PIP/performance review authority over her, and she meets with him monthly as well–and we agree that at a baseline level, she’s barely meeting expectations and there’s no real reason to terminate her (the boss has seen some small improvements, which is heartening).

So, after all that, my real question is, how do I tail this off without sounding like I’m cutting bait? (I have suggested, bluntly and more than once, that she really think hard about whether she feels this job is a good fit for her.) I’m fine with check-ins, but I am all out of ideas for any further growth and basic skills I can impart. At this point, it really is up to her to use what we’ve talked about, and I will tell her so. Beyond being a sounding board, there’s nothing more I can offer, and she’s got to start learning how to assess and direct her own performance on her own–the dependency on me doesn’t help her grow. How can I convey that in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m giving up on her?

I suppose that a “okay, I’m really out of bandwidth here and I think we’ve talked about a lot of stuff over the last year–how about monthly check-ins from here out” approach might work. I just don’t want her to feel like I’m throwing up my hands.

Yeah, this isn’t really your problem to solve. It’s great that you’ve tried, and you’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how to help her, but you’ve been meeting weekly for a year and it’s more than reasonable to decide that you’re at a point of diminishing returns. And you know, this happens even with really strong mentees — you eventually reach a point where it makes sense to scale back and have meetings be ad hoc rather than so regularly scheduled.

So the message here isn’t “you suck and I can’t try to salvage you anymore.” It’s “we’ve done some intensive work and we’re at a different stage now, so I’m going to back off.” I think you’re probably worried that it’s going to come across as the former because that’s closer to how you feel, but the latter is a completely reasonable message to deliver.

I’d say something like this to her: “Now that we’ve had some pretty intensive conversations about this stuff, why don’t you try out the things we’ve talked about and see how they go? Let’s switch from meeting every week to just checking in occasionally — I’ll leave it up to you to reach out when you have something specific you want to talk over.”

If you think she’s going to resist this, you could throw in something about not having as much time because of your core responsibilities, but still wanting to be available to her for a resource now and then … but either way, there’s no reason to feel guilty about delivering this message. You’re not even cutting off all contact; you’re just decreasing it to something that makes more sense now.

Also: While you sound awesome and I can see why your manager would be excited to have you helping out with this situation, the work you’ve described doing with this coworker sounds like less like mentoring and more like intensive remedial coaching. Your boss should have been questioning all along whether it makes sense to invest that kind of time in someone who isn’t performing well at some pretty fundamental things, and also whether it’s the best use of your time, in particular, given the other priorities I assume you have.

And that leads me to this: Combined with your boss’s willingness to keep someone who took so much effort just to get up to “barely meeting expectations,” I wonder if he just doesn’t want to do the hard work of actually addressing whether or not this is the right fit for your coworker … and has been using your willingness to help as a way to avoid that. If that’s the case, it’s really in the organization’s best interest for you to pull back so he’s more forced to deal with the fit issue.

Either way, I hope you’re getting appropriate recognition for going above and beyond here — from both your coworker and your company.

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