My understanding of productive disturbance and coherence making in mentorship

When I think of mentorship, I find it to be a very focused approach to leadership.  Leadership in an organization includes mentoring of team members but being in a peer mentorship experience is a very intentional and focused process that assumes that the mentor is competent, experienced, and well intentioned.  Rowley (1999) wrote an article about the qualities of a good mentor (“The Good Mentor”) and two traits in particular are relevant for our essential question this week:

“The good mentor is effective in different interpersonal contexts” (para 13).  To be a good mentor, I need to be able to work with a wide range of individuals who have their own unique skills, aptitudes, interests, and experiences.  The context is always changing and from mentee to mentee, it is important to not develop assumptions about how I go about my practice or doing the work of a mentor.  Over the past several months, my ability to do this effectively has been largely due to my understanding of the change process and in particular productive disturbance.  What has worked before in previous mentoring experiences might not work in the current one and I have to be attentive, present, and mindful of my mentee’s unique personal qualities within the context of her own organization.

“The good mentor is a model of a continuous learner” (para 17).  In order to support and guide the mentee through her own coherence making during our partnership, I need to model my own process to learn and use or apply what I learn.  Ultimately, this is something she will then do for her own team and simply telling her that this is an important aspect of the change process is not what is needed from a mentor.  Instead, by learning more about the mentee’s organization, her scope of work, the content she is responsible for training, and her approach and practice, I am modeling for her what it means to make sense of it all.  Not just in the context of our partnership, but in the context of my own learning and improvement of my skills as a mentor, how our working relationship and dialogue informs my own practice and approach, and how my observations and feedback of her work help me to improve my own skills.

Earlier this semester, I wrote about my moral purpose, and how I believed that my work and life experiences had led me to realize that what truly drives me is the desire to empower others.  Fullan (2014) points out that “(P)roductive disturbance is likely to happen when it is guided by moral purpose and when the process creates and channels new tensions while working on a complex problem” (p. 110).  During my mentorship project, I’ve been reminding myself that ultimately my goal is to empower the mentee to achieve whatever goals she has set and maybe even to discover new goals and ideas that she would like to pursue.  Focusing on the moral purpose helped me to understand how to channel the productive disturbance throughout this experience: knowing when to pursue the various tangents of ideas that come up in our meetings, asking the right questions to guide the mentee in her thought process, and figuring out how much to “push” the mentee outside of her comfort zone as a learner.

Leading peers through change undoubtedly will impact your working relationship and perception of one another as well as create a particular dynamic moving forward into other projects.  Establishing a collaborative partnership with the mentee was an important step in approaching the work together, as a team, and as partners; as opposed to a dynamic where the mentor pulls the mentee along behind them.  “When change occurs, there will be disturbances, and this means that there will be differences of opinion that must be reconciled.  Effective leadership means guiding people through the differences and, indeed, enabling differences to surface” (Fullan, 2014, p. 114).   In my view, the mentee brought an insider’s up-close, in-the-trenches perspective, while I came in with the outsider’s perspective, peeking in for a short period of time, and no agenda but to empower the mentee in accomplishing her goals.  Knowing and asking the right questions was a key strategy for me throughout this process.  Bearwald (2011) writes that “A coaching relationship isn’t about providing a quick fix or a recipe for success. Rather, the most powerful relationships focus on reflecting, exploring, analyzing, and digging deeper into good practice. In the coaching process, we hope to change reflections into insights, expand knowledge into wisdom, and evoke changes in behavior that improve performance (para 2).”  He goes on to outline how asking the right questions at the right time in the right way can go a long way in developing the mentee’s own abilities, practice, reflection, and learning process.  As the outsider, productive disturbance is necessary for me to understand how my role as the mentor (and leader) is best served through this collaboration.  

This also allows me to gain a better understanding of not only my mentee’s perspective and mindset but the organizational context within which her change process is taking place.  Bearwald (2011) reinforces something I wanted to demonstrate during the mentorship project – that the mentee would realize that she already had the abilities and knowledge that she needed to accomplish her goals.  And, Fullan (2014) writes, ” the only coherence that counts is not what is on paper nor what top management can articulate, but what is in the minds and hearts of members of the organization.  Rest assured also that the processes embedded in pursuing moral purpose, the change process, new relationships, and knowledge sharing, do actually produce greater and deeper coherence as they unfold.”  I focused on an approach where I guide but allow things to happen naturally in our sessions rather than to script how the time is spent.  This allows the mentee to become comfortable with our working dynamic but to also gain confidence in directing her own learning experience.

In his article, “The lost art of Inspired Mentoring”, Dan Holden (2014) outlines some practical and valuable advice for mentors; he writes about the various “level of dialogue” (p. 13) that mentors need to be aware of in order for us to see the mentorship process and experience in its entirety.  This is a significant concept that he discusses in helping us understand our role in coherence making during the mentorship experience:

The Idea/opinion level refers to the common practice or dialogue where we share what we think.  This occurs most frequently, to the point where we might even be able to predict what our team members would say or think about a particular topic because we’ve heard them express their opinion a time or two.  During this type of dialogue our role as mentor is to probe the mentee about their reasoning – ask them to compare the other perspectives, to question their motivations, to consider what factors impact their opinion, etc.

The Behavioral observation level is the dialogue you would experience during the sometimes dreaded but necessary annual performance review or evaluation.  While the discussion is a valuable one, it is better if mentors can make this type of dialogue take place more often, which would allow the mentee to focus on specific actions that were observable and make adjustments in a more productive and effective manner.  As a mentor, it would be important to help the mentee to walk through the reflection process and to set targets or tangible goals for their next steps.

The Feeling level is the dialogue that communicates who the mentee is as an individual and their perceptions, motivations, and of course, emotions.  We know that an organization is full of individual members who have unique and complex emotions, it’s just part of the human process.  Just as we learn to address these aspects of our learners in a classroom, we must also understand how to guide mentees through their feelings and emotions about the change process and coherence making.  

The Judgement/assumption level concerns dialogue that frames “assumptions we hold about ourselves and our capacity to work through the volatile times” (Holden, 2014, p. 14).  You can think of this as either getting in or getting out of our own way; we can set ourselves up for failure or success depending on how we assess our ability to deal with adversity, or for the sake of our discussion, the complex change process taking place around and within us.  As a mentor, this is an important time for us to guide mentees to name their fears and anxieties and yes, assumptions, so that they can shift their approach, perspective and perception of their own abilities to take ownership of the situation at hand.

Understanding how these aspects of leading in a culture of change work together throughout this mentoring project has helped me to be more attentive and focused on the needs and interests of the mentee.  My overall focus has been to empower her not only to accomplish her goals with our project but to also realize that she can effectively spend time exploring new tools and strategies that will only continue to help her increase her skill and comfort level integrating technology into her work.


Bearwald, R. R. (2011). It’s About the Questions. Educational Leadership, 69(2), 74-77.  Retrieved from:

Fullan, M. (2014). Leading in a Culture of Change. Somerset, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Retrieved from:

Holden, D.  (2014). The lost art of INSPIRED MENTORING.  Industrial Management, 56(6), 10-15.  Retrieved from:

Rowley, J.B.  (1999).  The Good Mentor.  Educational Leadership, 56(8), 20-22.  Retrieved from:



Reflection Post:

I am continually inspired through our twitter sessions, we hashed out some difficult topics related to productive disturbance, strange attractors, and ways that leaders implement their visions for change.  You could almost feel each of us trying to sum up our responses in the limited number of characters available; that’s when you know you’ve got a great topic and lots of thoughts to share and sort through!  

In the other blogs, I found some important points made by peers.  Theresa (@teacherak14) referenced an “ongoing cycle of questioning that promotes deep learning”.  I found this to be an important aspect of the culture of change; rather than a stationary cycle, in this view of a cycle of change, we may circle back through a process but the entire cycle propels us forward to build on prior knowledge and experiences and enhance our understanding.  I commented that there is always something different in the next cycle – whether it’s the context, the content, the individuals, the tasks, etc., we can effectively use controlled disturbance to ensure that coherence making occurs.  Genevieve’s (@gkkapatak) blog post discussed a balancing of encouraging productive disturbance while still supporting and building coherence.  The significance of this balance is in the sense of direction that is brought to surface; a leader and mentor must consciously work toward this balance.  I commented that while there is no clear cut path or script for how this takes place, by using Fullan’s five components of leading in a culture of change, we can be intentional in our disruption and add value rather than create confusion.

Tyler’s (@iamindlgak) inspirational post about the revived science fair at his school was a great example of the disruption that can impact and benefit more than just the students; in their case, the greater community around the students was able to see learning in a different way and be inspired by the achievement and motivation of the students.  I commented that the benefits of participating in the designing, creating, and presenting of their projects, allows students to build skills and apply them in other contexts for learning.

Mentoring has been a part of my personal and professional identity for quite some time; as an educator, a coach, a friend, and a colleague, I naturally gravitate towards mentoring roles, which is probably why I arrived at a moral purpose of empowering others.  I also find myself continually looking ahead or thinking forward and outward when I try to gain a better understanding and perspective of a particular situation.  This helps me on a practical level to make decisions in the immediate task that fit into the overall big picture and it helps me affirm that I am taking the right course of action.

However, I think mentoring is much more complex because it is less about teaching and more about guiding and advising a mentee to arrive at their own decisions and conclusions.  It also requires me to learn what I can about the mentee, to be intentional about improving my ability to mentor, and to understand how my actions within the context of mentorship will impact the mentee in their learning process.

Any thoughts, feelings, opinions, suggestions?

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