Formal or Informal Mentoring ?

Informal or Formal Mentoring?
© 2001, Barry Sweeny


In most organizations, professionals are willing to extend assistance to others when they see there is a clear need for help. Often, managers will ask more experienced employees to serve as a “mentor” when the need for help is more obvious or expected. In such a case, the experienced employee is frequently left to their own common sense to decide just what “mentoring is needed and how to do it.
For some, or even many things, the mentor’s experience and common sense may be sufficient to address protégé needs. That response is what we mean when we describe the assistance as informal mentoring.

But expectations in nearly every career have dramatically changed, competition, demands for improvement and cost efficiencies, requirements for access to better careers, and many other things are different. This may be so much the case that even the better employees we may designate as “mentors” will admit to struggling each day to be a continual learner and better the next day than the day before.

In such environments, informal mentoring by common sense is completely inadequate.
That is why most formal mentoring programs are begun. Sound familiar?

Here are some factors you should consider when deciding how to answer this question of the level of formality needed for mentoring in your organization.


Factors to Consider – Informal or Formal Mentoring?
Informal Mentoring
Formal Mentoring
> Low expectations make mentoring “easier to do”, but less effective

> Little or no training needed

> Employees who need and/or want to grow often don’t ask for help they need as they don’t want to appear “dumb”

> Experienced employees often don’t help since they don’t want to look like “know-it-alls”

> Veterans don’t want to “intrude” and don’t want to appear critical or negative

> Individual informal help is hard to identify & hard to support, affirm, or recognize

> The need to be productive and to deal with all the work overwhelm the desire to use time to learn, improve, and to help others to learn

> Veterans’ support tends to further the status quo and current problems rather than promote new practices, norms, and improved results.

> More challenging to do

> Training required

> Employees who need and/or want to grow feel questions are expected and so ask more questions & reveal needs

> Veterans know collaboration is desired and expected

> Mentors are prepared to handle the challenges with finesse and skill

> The organization knows who to support and to reward for helping

> Time for adult learning is more protected and more expected

> Results improve as adult learning becomes better supported and more routine.