4

I am currently mentoring/supervising a person within an academia-related field. This is not my first time in this role. I am easygoing, dislike unnecessary conflicts, and I like people to feel good and have nice teamwork. I highly value communication so I am open (and encourage others) to report so I can better help/work with them. I'd say I'm rather 'normal' in this sense (no micromanaging, no strict rules, adaptable to different styles).

So, there is this person currently under my guidance. I don't directly pay his salary (I pay all the other costs), but his project was approved because I was recommended to be the supervisor. It started very well and we both agreed communication should exist at all times (I consider this obvious but just in case I make it clear before choosing a candidate).

However, for unknown reasons, everything changed when the real work started. He seems constantly in a defensive position and I hardly have any news from him. I tried to consider different scenarios: Maybe I am doing something wrong? Maybe he doesn't want to bother the mentor? Etc. He seems to purposely limit the information to me. Unfortunately, the opportunities (of synergy and creative spin-offs) that are lost due to this lack of interaction will result in a loss for the project and for his career.

I constantly try to reach him with very limited success.

He's not lazy, or incompetent, nor doesn't want the project to advance. But, without explicit reasons, he doesn't follow my advice or communications. I am open to the possibility that my advice might not be appropriate for any reason, and to discuss it. Basically, he puts very little (if any) effort into keeping the communication alive and I am concerned about how healthy it is to work like this.

Recently, 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 he wait until I arrive so I can participate and help him better. He decided to go on anyway, and I was fine with that. Five weeks later (with no news, as usual) I started getting (unsolicited) updates about him from other colleagues: 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. Similarly, he was engaging in trying to set up formal agreements with another company, without me (ie his formal supervisor) knowing anything about it.

This is something that 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).

This is the first time I have had to deal with this stuff. I feel like I don't have the tools to handle him or the situation. In one of my intents to know what was happening, I asked him if there was anything from my side that he felt was blocking or preventing the communication (no answer to that) and that I was willing to change things if needed.

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).

Edit 0: reduced the length of the text, as suggested by some commenters.

4
  • 2
    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. Apr 17, 2020 at 9:27
  • 2
    This is a bit of a wall of text, I recommend to narrow it or at least to create section headings and try to organize it better.
    – Nik
    Oct 21, 2023 at 15:00
  • @CaptainEmacs there is no management without communication. Even the minimum "check in with them" needs clear and two-ways communication. See in my response how the story ended.
    – terauser
    Nov 16, 2023 at 19:05
  • @terauser It was not a critique - and I am aware that some people just do their thing and ignore what they are asked to do. They say "yes, yes" and do their thing. Well, when that happens, as they say in the Westerns, "one needs to do what one needs to do." BTW, as per SE convention, you should write the updates, clearly marked, at the end of your question, not as a response. Nov 18, 2023 at 2:54

3 Answers 3

4

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.

1
  • 1
    +1, before seeing your answer I had already commented on the writing style (sorry if the link doesn't go to a comment, which would be because someone else deleted the comment).
    – Nik
    Oct 21, 2023 at 15:01
1

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.

1

I post this in case other supervisors / mentors who care about creating a positive and healthy environment find this useful.

Four years later... I can tell the complete story.

Looking back at the facts, I can answer my own question now.

What happened

  • I tried to talk again with him. Two times. Didn't work, he didn't change a bit his ways. It only got worse and in the end, we only exchanged the minimum amount of emails to keep the project 'operational'.
  • He got things done (bare minimum). Finished and (fortunately) left.
  • Contrary to advice from some colleagues, I did not pursue any formal/administrative action against this person.
  • After commenting this to other people (looking for their opinions/advice), it turns out this person had several altercations and similar problems with different colleagues. Apparently, he has some kind of personal issue with the figure of authority and does not react well to guidance/mentoring from anyone. This was mentioned over and over by a number of his former colleagues and supervisors. Now I think "Gosh, I should have realized this was the issue!"

Lessons learned

  • The communication style should not be an obstacle, as long as there is a willingness to communicate. @Nik, yes I tend to be lengthy in writing. But I have no problem if someone needs a shorter and to-the-point style, I can adapt to that. This was clearly not the problem here.
  • @user35129 your comment that I "sound a little too confident" about my supervisory style and that I "assume that any fault causing the current challenge is due to the student's advertent or inadvertent misbehaviour" is totally unjustified. Did you even read my 2nd paragraph?
  • Asking for advice from people I respect was the best thing I did. It gave me multiple views on the subject and helped me to take my decision with more confidence.
  • Since this was the first (and until now, only) time I experienced this kind of situation, I also learned about myself: I do not appreciate someone who "gets things done" if it is not within a context of communication and mutual respect (to me and to the rest of the team/colleagues).
  • I decided that, while I am the group leader/senior the "he is an ass... but he gets things done" kind of role is completely unacceptable and opens doors to all kinds of abuses, toxicity, and unjust situations. Hopefully, this behavior belongs to a past era of Academia.

My advice

  • To students / mentorees: Communicate. Everything else is probably solvable.
  • To supervisors / mentors: Stay humble. But don't be hesitant to reinforce respect and communication in the workplace. Don't be afraid to prioritize social peace and mental health over everything else. If you don't have those, you have nothing.
5
  • I do not agree with your negative take on "gets things done" attitudes. If he does not do what you expect (communicate a lot), but gets things done right, this does not make him an #@!$. I have worked - very successfully - with such people. I have a team on one matter which I send my prepared documents/instructions and they just do it, with very minimal communication beyond my basic instructions, like well-oiled machine. It very much depends on the people and the project. Your candidate is obviously authority-adverse and a backstabber but this is a separate issue from communicating minimally. Nov 18, 2023 at 3:02
  • @CaptainEmacs. To clarify, A) I have no problem with minimum communication. You seem to infer repeatedly that I need/expect someone to communicate a lot, while in actuality I only expect that communication exists. I have worked w/ people with minimum communication skills (and different attitude!) and was fine. B) To be fair I don't think that someone is an !"#$% because she/he doesn't act as I expect. Rather, my view is that 'getting things done' does not compensate for being a toxic component of the team. If she/he is an as"#$%, I don't want that person even if she/he gets things done.
    – terauser
    Nov 18, 2023 at 18:58
  • As I said, if they are a backstabber as it seems (and maybe you have other reasons to think so which didn't shine through your question), I think you are in the perfect right to want to get rid of them. However, your (very long, BTW) question emphasizes communication so much that it actually seems to be the core issue. Note that others have remarked on the very long text, too. Be assured that I sympathise with wanting to get rid of a toxic team member, but lack of communication a toxic member does not make. You may want to adapt your question to home in on what's really the problem. Nov 18, 2023 at 19:15
  • 1
    Fair enough. I appreciate your comments and views.
    – terauser
    Nov 18, 2023 at 19:25
  • The question is better now, thank you. Nov 19, 2023 at 11:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .