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I am working in a academia-related field and the type of relationships tend to be pretty much as kind of mentor-students. I have mentored many persons in the past with very nice experiences and results. But today I am worried about the current one.

As acknowledged by past and current colleagues (both below and above my rank), I am the complete opposite of 'conflictive' or 'difficult' person and 99.5% of the time I avoid confrontation and displeasure in work because I like people to feel good working with me and I trust that we get better results this way. So I am open to interaction and constantly try to encourage my team mates (including employees) to write emails to me, set up meetings, communicate, update me so I can better help them in context, etc. I have defects as everyone else and I am willing to openly talk about them and resolve them if possible. I am open to criticisms and have no problem in admitting and try to change things if that helps the team to work better and achieve more results in a fair way.

So, there is this person who is doing his project under my guidance. I don't directly pay his salary, but his project (and hence his salary) was approved because I was recommended to be the supervisor. I provide the project-related funding (except his salary). Everything started very well and I liked him, I felt he was a potential good team member. But for some reason that I can't understand (I have asked a few times already with no real answer) everything changed when the real work started. He seems to be always in a defensive position and I have a hard time getting updates about what he's doing. I don't really know what to think: is he too shy? (sometimes in this mentor-student-like relationships the 'student' side feels he/she doesn't want to bother the mentor).. or am I doing something wrong in my side? For some reason he seems purposedly limit the information he gives, as if it was a kind of hidden strategy or somehting. Does he not see that this will hurt the project, and potentially impact his professional career? I try all the time to make contact with him with very limited success. He is not all the time in the office as he says he's more comfortable working on goals instead of work hours. I said whatever works best for you, as long as you get results. He seems to like what he does, he usually doesn't skip meetings, and it's not that he is lazy, incompetent or doesn't want the project to advance. But I can't figure out why he behaves like this and why, without explicit reason, he doesn't follow my advices or communications. I even opened the possibility that if there is an advice that he doesn't agree on we can discuss it. But even when he replies my emails, half of the questions remain unanswered and I am tired of replying with emails like "oh, and when you have time please remember about [...several subjects...] which I asked in my previous email". The 1st day of work, before starting anything together I sat with him and made it very clear that communication is of high priority for me to work well with any team member. So in theory he knows that. However he puts very little (if any) effort in keeping that communication alive and healthy. In addition, the cash flow for his project depends pretty much on my approval, and it is me that is constantly encouraging to spend (and send me the bills!) so he doesn't need to worry about funding limitations.

This has been going on for one year already. But more recently the problem got worse. I had to travel for a few weeks to work in another city. He wanted to do some activities while I was absent and I suggested him to wait until I arrive so I can participate and help him better. He decided to go on anyway, and I said 'OK, if you feel you need to do it now and you consider it will work, go ahead'. Several weeks (4-5) went by without me knowing what he was doing and then I started getting (unsolicited) updates about him from other colleagues:

First two colleagues told me (they were just mentioning it in the middle of unrelated conversation, assuming that I was already in knowledge of it) that he was engaging in trying to set up formal agreements with another company, without me (ie his formal supervisor) knowing anything about it. After this I sent him an email from my trip saying that we really need to improve communication, and that I got updates and information about him via 3rd parties instead of directly from him. He replied something like "yes but it is difficult when you are far away and since I am preparing things I don't always take the time to write you an email". So my feeling was that after I allocated my time to write a very careful email (I always take care that the email doesn't sound harsh and doesn't close the communication flow by blaming etc.) asking for more communication, and the answer was that the other party doesn't give the value I expected to the communication. In short, I felt that if I can sit down and write that email in the middle of very-intensive work days, he can very much do it as well, but he can't (or doesn't want to) give priority to communication. This is something which builds up a barrier between us and for some reason I feel something like discomfort from his side (which I have asked about and again, never got a real answer).

Second (and this is the worst part), I learned from two additional, different people that while I was away he was spreading the 'image' (I can't be sure what words he used) that I left him alone, abandoned with his activities. He even said that if I don't help him soon, he will make sure that I don't get any credit for any advancement in the project. This is crazy because he is in the project thanks to my recommendation in the first place, he is using funds that I provide in the second place, and most important every time I want to help, he closes the door to open, healthy and constructive communication. The most funny thing is that his career (not mine) really needs the project to advance. So I am left in the silly position that I care about something which is not huge benefit for me (and it is for him), but I have to deal with this crappy situation as if I am doing something wrong, does it make sense? And again, if I am doing something wrong it is totally fine but I can't change it if I don't know what the problem is.

This is the first time I have to deal with this kind of situation (or person). As I said I am usually in a very different (if not opposite) situation so I feel like I don't have tools to handle him or the situation. In the email I mentioned above, I asked him if there is anything from my side that he feels it's blocking or preventing the communication (no answer to that) and that I am willing to change things if needed. Everyone who has ever worked with me knows that I am the kind of guy who is always there to help and encourage people, so it is unfair that I am now feeling like I am 'being put' (in the eyes of others who listen to his gossip) into the same character of those cold, careless bosses which I myself criticize a lot.

So, as you see, the title of this question is about communication, but can it be something else? What would you do in my place? How to solve this professionally without blocking his career but at the same time keeping my authority? I fear that if I don't do anything and let him spread bad words about me I will pay an undeserved cost: it will hurt my reputation because it would look like a double standard from my side (ie always preaching about communication and team work but on the other hand I 'abandon' my employee instead).

  • To me this looks like mismatch of preferred management style. Does he deliver the goals? If yes, some people do not like permanent communication, but just to know what to do and to proceed accordingly. If your candidate is such a person, make clear targets, and interfaces and give them the tools, and off they go. Check in with them, but don't overdo it and do not micromanage or -communicate. Others need permanent feedback. This does not seem to be the case here. Resist the desire to be liked and not criticised; but respected, you must be. Have a 1-on-1 to converge on mutual expectations. – Captain Emacs Apr 17 at 9:27
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Based on your writing style, you sound a little too confident about your supervisory style, and it seems you assume that any fault causing the current challenge is due to the student's advertent or inadvertent misbehaviour. I suggest you first take a closer look at yourself to assess what possibly could have gone wrong on your side. You can ask trusted friends and colleagues to give you honest feedback about it. Just keep in mind that even those "cold and careless" bosses probably think they are the most excellent mentors in the world. It takes much effort to be introspective and assess your shortcomings objectively.

There is an inherent power imbalance against students in academia that makes honest communication a daunting task for the students. Imagine this student thinks that you are micromanaging him/her( which is perceived by you as a close mentorship), how possibly he/she could have communicated this issue to you without the fear of hurting his/her academic career.

To be clear, I am not advocating the student, nor implying that you are the problem. However, I believe that your step should be to have an objective assessment of yourself.

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Certainly there appears to be a communication issue between you two. It's possible you and the student (or employee, mentee, whatever) just have very different communication styles and needs. It also sounds to me like your student may even be harboring some resentment toward you. From my own experience, I've certainly had difficulty working with a supervisor after feeling like they wouldn't make time for me and/or give me the support I needed. (And I think this is a very common feeling.)

My suggestion would be to sit down with the student and ask directly if they feel you've been meeting their needs in terms of communication, guidance, support, direction, etc. Give them the opportunity to air their grievances, but keep in mind that, due to the inherent power-dynamic, they may not be all that forthcoming. Getting to the root of the issue may take a few follow-up meetings, and the student may need some time to think about how to convey their experience.

Then you can reciprocate and convey (tactfully) that you need more/better/different communication from them for this relationship to work out. I wouldn't expect any drastic improvements in communication right away, but coming to the student with a bit of humility and vulnerability might go a long way towards repairing their image of you (however unfounded it may be/feel to you).

An alternative (but not mutually exclusive) option is to suggest that the student look for another advisor. Maybe even ask around in your department to see if that would be possible. You don't need to say anything negative about the student; just convey that the student's manner of communication doesn't work for you, but you'll do all you can to help them find another advisor.

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