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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).

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    Hello, welcome to the workplace! Could you try to add a short version, or rephrase some part to be more readable? Also, are you his supervisor/manager or just a mentor ? – ChrisR Nov 14 '19 at 15:03
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    It might help you get answers to shorten this. You want to figure out what your question is instead of dumping all details about an event and expecting people to figure out what the question actually is – Layman Nov 14 '19 at 15:56
  • ChrisR, I'm his supervisor. – terauser Nov 15 '19 at 2:13
  • Victor S, you have a point, but I wanted to include some details to give more "tools" to the reader for an answer, and also hopefully avoid some assumptions and further questions. – terauser Nov 15 '19 at 2:14
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You are this person's supervisor. And, you're his mentor. You have plenty of mentoring experience, so you know what kind of behavior to expect from people in his position.

That means you know he's behaving badly. And it's obvious from your question here that he is wasting your time and energy with this bad behavior.

You're the boss. You have authority. You're the one with experience. You're doing him a favor by serving as his mentor and supervisor for this project. And he is not meeting your expectations. You're not doing anything wrong, he is.

Get in touch with the person who does pay his salary and explain how he's not meeting your expectations as his supervisor and mentor. Ask for advice. Maybe somebody else can take over mentoring this person.

Be his mentor one last time. Call him into a meeting. Tell him, firmly, that he's misbehaving. Work it out ahead of time so you can describe two or three specific incidents where you observed poor behavior on his part. Be as specific as you can. And explain to him why this kind of behavior will serve him poorly in his career.

If he interrupts you, or tries to argue, simply say "please let me finish saying what I have to say" and continue. He's not there to debate with you. He's there to listen to your voice of authority.

Then, ask him if he wants to continue his mentorship relationship with you. If he says, "no," then you say "OK, best of luck to you in the future. If you need anything from me you know how to get in touch." Then forget about him. It was a mentorship that didn't work out. It happens.

If he says "yes" then say, "OK: Here are my expectations for how we will work together from now on. You will communicate with me as follows....." then tell him what you need from him. Be specific. Maybe you should even write out your expectations.

Remember: you can be firm without being unkind.

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You should probably be posting this on Academia Stack Exchange instead of here, because there are some dynamics in this situation which don't work quite the same way in a company, as they do in a university.

That being said, you're clearly up against a person who has some issues. The reasons for this behavior don't really matter at this juncture, however you should be aware that his actions, and your inability to reign him in, or kick him to the curb are probably harming your reputation.

As the person ultimately in charge, you should step in, and figure out what is going on. And that doesn't mean sending another politely worded email, and folding like a house of cards when he pushes back, and tells you to effectively get lost.

Be aware that it is your policy of conflict avoidance that led to this situation - this should have been addressed much more firmly, and much earlier. Human interaction, especially in a hierarchy, will always lead to some conflict, whether we like it or not. This guy not respecting your time, resources, or authority, is a more than simply a sign of disrespect, or difficulty learning - it is a challenge of your status as his boss, and a challenge of your authority as a professor.

You do not feel threatened, and instead have only his best interests in mind, which is admirable, but ultimately naive. Make no mistake: the longer you fail to address the situation, the more damage this individual is going to inflict on your reputation and relationships.

Keep in mind that while this person has been frittering away resources, and making a nuisance of himself, a more deserving student could have been taking advantage of that opportunity.

And so, you need to confront this person. Jones's advice is good, but I'll be honest, I think you're far past the point of no return with this person. He is not shy, or a poor communicator - he is actively lying to everyone around him about your involvement with the project. This is the mark of a manipulating and egotistic person, not a shy nerd who forgets to hit send on his emails.

Your best course of action is:

  • To document what you've done to try to engage with him (collate those emails into a file)
  • Speak to your colleagues and find out exactly what this person has been telling everyone (also document this - get it in writing if possible)
  • Kick off the process of firing him.

This does not mean that you can't also sit down with him and try to communicate your displeasure. But look into the legality of recording that conversation (in Canada, for example, it is legal to record a conversation as long as one participant is aware that this is happening), or simply have someone else (who is aware of the situation) present as a witness.

I can't stress this enough. He sounds like the kind of person who might entirely misrepresent what you said to him in a face-to-face setting.

Watch your back, and get him out of your lab in a hurry.

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