Handling personal feelings as a workplace mentor

How do you handle stress? How do you read or anticipate emotions? And what do you do about your intuitions? Perhaps difficult feelings can make you doubt yourself in some way. Over time, you may even find your sense of identity shifts. Perhaps your mentees are also changing as they learn. 

Along with this general idea of how we deal with feelings, I also want to share some insights into the role of emotion and personal experience when you judge someone’s competence at work. I’d like to help you better understand the part your conscience plays, and confront any feelings of guilt. Finally, you can consider how you and others may be hiding their feelings to portray a more acceptable ‘public face’.

Guilt and conscience

  • If you are striving for justice and objectivity, do you feel guilty about emotions running through your judgements?
  • Do you ever get a sense of guilt about feeling inconvenienced by a learner in the workplace? For example, perhaps it interferes with fast, efficient, team working?
  • Do you feel guilty when telling a learner they are failing their practice assessments?

Falling short of expectations?

Guilt is an unpleasant emotional state. It arises when there may be possible objections to your actions or intentions. For example, if you feel that the pressure of having a student working with you is becoming unpleasant and stressful, you might decide to spend less time with them, or give them ‘easy’ tasks to do that do not demand your input. You hear your conscience telling you to ‘give more’ to your student – you are letting them down. You are accountable for providing good learning opportunities, and you feel guilty about falling short.

Torn loyalties?

Guilt is also very common when mentors need to inform a mentee they are not achieving their learning outcomes. Mentors are torn between befriending and supporting learners, and telling someone they are not up to the mark. You can feel equally guilty by letting someone who lacks competence pass an assessment. Letting someone through who is not competent means you are not fulfilling your obligations to your profession and colleagues.

Objectivity versus subjectivity

A third situation that commonly makes mentors feel guilty is to allow your feelings to influence your judgements about a learner’s capabilities. Please go to the next section of this page for some discussion about this.

Handling guilt

These feelings of guilt are common. If you ever feel overcome by guilt, remind yourself of the balancing acts you are performing on a daily basis. Sometimes the priority will be to protect yourself from burnout. At other times you will have the energy to tackle your mentoring with gusto. Learners in the workplace will need to develop sensitivities to all of this as they gain more experience. Try to work out why you are feeling so guilty and put the feelings into perspective. If guilt is eating away at you, talk to someone who will listen.

Tips for managers

Mentors are often in situations that make them feel guilty. They may feel stuck ‘between a rock and a hard place’ when their daily decisions can make them feel that they are not always doing the best for their mentees, if there is conflict with maintaining a service. They can feel torn loyalties if the needs and wishes of their mentees are not aligned with other work priorities or professional demands.

It can help to keep a watching brief with this in mind.

Feelings and objectivity

  • Do you sometimes fear your judgements are not sufficiently objective?
  • Do you ever visualise family and friends as customers or clients of your mentee?

Gut feelings

There is plenty of evidence that people make decisions based on both ‘affect’ and logical reasoning. Strong feelings can signal that something needs close attention. This emotional sensitisation can be important for mentors in their decision-making. Emotional responses are also felt in a physical way. ‘Gut’ feelings are commonly felt around the stomach. These embodied instincts can generate important knowledge about a situation. It is worth paying attention to gut feelings.

Moral intuitions

In the caring professions particularly, thoughts, emotions and actions intertwine to guide standards of care and responsibility. Nurse mentors will often imagine their student caring for a close relative (e.g. their child or grandparent) to support their judgements about whether or not the student is suitable for the profession. Making moral intuitions feel more ‘real’ in this way also makes it easier to put vague feelings about a person into words.

Are feelings unprofessional?

Although it can seem very unprofessional to let your feelings infiltrate decisions, do not push them  aside completely. Of course, let the evidence speak, but also listen to your intuitions. Emotions are increasingly viewed as essential aids to moral judgements. This is despite years of inherited ‘wisdom’ about emotions being unreliable, arbitrary, and prone to bias.

Tips for managers

If you are responsible for mentors, particularly those who are ‘professional gatekeepers’, be aware of the important place of feelings and intuitions. In a world where rational decisions hold sway, take time to listen to some of the less tangible intuitions of your experienced staff.

Hidden emotions

  • Are you performing emotional labour in your work?
  • Can and should emotional labour skills be more actively taught to learners?
  • Can you read emotional labour in the learners you support?
  • Are learners hiding their insecurities?

Emotional labour

Do you ever find yourself smiling and exuding calmness in order to make someone else feel confident about your abilities, even though you are feeling panic inside? It is likely that at these times you are performing emotional labour. The key ingredients of emotional labour are that you are masking your real feelings or even changing the way you feel, so that you can have a desired emotional effect on someone else. People in public service roles are probably doing this all the time without even thinking about it.

Hiding or revealing emotional labour?

Mentors often need to perform emotional labour with colleagues, clients and learners. This emotional labour may have implications for learners, because their mentors could be hiding it. This could be deliberate or the mentor might be completely unaware they are hiding it. If this is happening, however, how do students learn how to handle difficult feelings at work? These subtle aspects of work behaviour may differ between workplaces. Learning how to handle emotions normally occurs as a gradual process of professional socialisation. This process could be enhanced if mentors share their reflections on emotionally challenging situations, revealing their authentic feelings and how they then managed them.

Learners and emotional labour

It is important to remember that students are also likely to be performing their own emotional labour with you. They might be hiding their anxiety to make themselves appear more confident and competent. They might be exaggerating their lack of confidence to receive more attention from mentors. Why not discuss emotional labour with learners? This could take place in induction conversations with students, and discussions about learning goals and opportunities. It is all part of agreeing how you will maintain a successful mentor-student partnership.

Tips for managers

Emotional labour can be draining. It could help to arrange intermittent informal get-togethers where staff can have frank conversations about how they are managing their feelings in front of clients, colleagues and learners.

Author: Anthea

I enjoy writing about the intersection between people and the natural world. I also feel compelled to delve into human behaviour - philosophically and practically. With a background in further and higher education, plant science and healthcare, I like to apply my expertise in workplace learning, distance learning and e-learning. Mix it all up, and see what comes out!

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