6 min read
Nov 17, 2019

How Reverse Mentoring Makes Your Business More Competitive

Reverse mentoring helps your organization maintain fresh perspectives, reduce bias, and gain an advantage over the competition.

Zach CapersSenior Analyst

A company's competitive advantage often depends on its ability to keep up with technological advances. Will remote work make your team more productive? Should you focus your social media marketing strategy on Instagram or TikTok? Do you even know what TikTok is? By ignoring emerging trends and digital innovations, companies risk losing relevance.

That's why businesses must capitalize on the diverse knowledge, skills, and abilities of every employee, whether they have decades of experience or are fresh out of university. This can be accomplished with a reverse mentoring program.

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What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring is a method of gaining insight from junior employees by harnessing their unique perspectives to inform senior staff. As we gain experience, we can sometimes narrow our focus and become fixed in our beliefs. Reverse mentoring helps to incorporate fresh ideas and ensure that we don't stay locked into echo chambers that only serve to reinforce the status quo.

For reverse mentoring to be successful, the mentee must be open to learning from the less experienced, and often younger, reverse mentor. The reverse mentee should be prepared to consider diverse perspectives that may be completely at odds with their own preconceptions.

The term reverse mentoring might be a misnomer. As the process plays out, reciprocal mentoring commonly takes hold whereby the junior employee learns from the experience and acumen of the senior employee. This type of symbiotic knowledge sharing is invaluable for businesses because it derives value from existing resources.

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Benefits of a reverse mentoring program

Despite the obvious benefits of knowledge sharing within an organization, mentoring programs are not widespread. In fact, a recent GetApp survey found that only 14% of respondents reported having a mentoring training program in place at their company.

One factor that could explain this number being so low is that many mentor mentee relationships are unofficial, rather than part of a formal training program. With that said, the vast majority of businesses are clearly not taking advantage of the intangible benefits offered by mentoring programs that cost little to implement and include few risks.

Overcome cultural limitations

The mentoring concept is more readily adopted in some cultures than others. For example, in nearly every facet of Japanese life, whether sports, education, or professional development, there is a senpai kōhai dynamic. The senpai is experienced and knowledgeable while the kōhai is the learner. This is almost always based on age.

Mentoring works well in Japan because it's intrinsic to the culture, mostly because age is generally accepted as the most important factor in familial, social, and business relationships. However, this same viewpoint would likely impede reverse mentoring efforts in Japan.

Conversely, In the U.S., the mentoring concept can be at odds with a narrative that Americans should be independent agents pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. And while self-reliance is a good quality, it can have negative effects if it limits collaboration and prevents one from seeking advice from others when appropriate.

Close generation gaps

Gen Z and younger Millennials were born into a digital world that required a learning curve for previous generations. In this way, digital literacy (the ability to effectively evaluate digital media and technology) is like a language and those who are brought up speaking it have an advantage over those who learned it as a second language later in life. That means today's less seasoned employees commonly speak the language of modern business better than employees with decades of experience.

We are in the midst of a unique age that sees four distinct generations working together: Digital-native Gen Z, internet-explosion Millennials, dial-up Gen X-ers, and pre-internet Baby Boomers. Companies must work to integrate these disparate generations to make sense of a business world where legacy skill sets matter less than digital literacy, collaboration, and agility.

Reduce confirmation bias

Gaining insight from less experienced employees can also reduce confirmation bias that sometimes sets in after many years of experience. Confirmation bias occurs when you accept only that which reinforces existing beliefs while ignoring conflicting information.

When new information is introduced, confirmation bias causes us to see it through the perspective of our previous experience, hindering our objectivity and reducing the ability to make informed decisions about business strategy. Reverse mentoring can act as a check on confirmation bias.

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How to create a reverse mentoring program

Reverse mentoring programs should be tied to business needs and designed to close specific skills gaps. To begin, identify relevant skills gaps, define competency levels, and create a skills inventory to identify potential mentors. From there, employees in need of upskilling in a particular area can be paired with a suitable mentor.

Competency level: L (low), M (medium), H (high)

A process must also be developed to successfully assign mentors and mentees according to time commitments, communication preferences, learning styles, and personality types. The program can include shadow sessions, direct instruction, or collaboration, whichever way makes most sense to reach the mentee's goals. The success of the program will depend on its implementation, the ability to measure progress, and the commitment of its participants.

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