Some supervisors are more supportive and helpful than others. The ones who aren't supportive, are often expected by their own supervisors to at least make the attempt to be supportive by talking with their direct reports about their work and potential issues they may have. Usually this is because trying to be proactive and approach them directly when problems first arise is met with avoidance or unsupportive feedback.

However, when your supervisor asks "How are things are going?", and things aren't going well, you really only have two options, neither of which are particularly helpful to the situation.

(1) You answer "Great, no problems!" which ends the conversation, but doesn't get you any support in solving the problem, and prevents you from being open and honest with them. Or,

(2) You answer "Not great, I'm having this issue...." after which you describe the problem, perhaps some of your ideas in how you've been trying solve it, maybe solicit advice on what they might do in a similar situation, or admit that you're stuck. At this point, this unsupportive supervisor responds "I don't know" or, "I don't want to hear about problems or any complaints" or worse yet "This is your fault, why are you in this situation?" None of which helps, and certainly doesn't inspire a sense of confidence in your ability to do your job. But, at least you were honest with your supervisor.

Is there a better way to communicate honestly with an unsupportive supervisor without making the situation worse?

This is in the US in the public sector.

  • 6
    An "unsupportive Supervisor" who does not help you at all is not doing their job. So even if you don't expect them to help, they still need to be made aware. As soon as possible, and best in writing. If you screw up the project later, you can point to your supervisor "He knew that everything went downhill and did nothing to help me!". If you told them "Everything is great", they will fire you later for an outright lie.
    – jwsc
    Mar 11, 2021 at 12:35

4 Answers 4


If you have an issue you need assistance with, you don't wait until your supervisor randomly asks you how you are. You let them know you need assistance.

  • See option 2. Proactively seeking support results in the same response as responding truthfully to their question. This is an unsupportive supervisor, regardless of who speaks first.
    – iwantmyphd
    Mar 10, 2021 at 3:39
  • 4
    Option 2 you waited until the supervisor initiated a dialogue. You didn't proactively approach them to do their job of supervising.
    – Kilisi
    Mar 10, 2021 at 3:41

If the only difference in outcomes between two choices is that in one of the choices you were honest, as opposed to being dishonest, you should favour being honest.

You personal confidence is something you can control. You are aware of what the supervisor is like, so if you decide to take their words to heart, that is your decision.

If you have a specific problem, as @Kilisi said, you gotta be proactive in trying to get that resolved. Even if your supervisor cannot help you, it's wise to keep them in the loop so they don't have a nasty surprise when you don't meet deadlines.

If you are ever asked about the conduct of the supervisor by their supervisor, you can't say: "I don't feel I can trust them to help me". That is a subjective assessment. Actually asking them, even if in vain, allows you to bring specific instances to the table where they were not supportive.


I don't want to hear about problems or any complaints

Prepare to give a suitable response that fits to your relation to the supervisor. It should express
if you ask a question then be prepared to get an honest response -> don't care? then don't ask!

Generally if you already did your best to get help without being asked directly and this conversation will be useless for you, respond with something fuzzy like
well there are things to solve
that makes the asker lose interest to keep asking.

But don't lie to them, like things are fine... because they aren't fine!
Don't give wrong information that people like this one might use against you.

Also prepare an as neutral as possible response if someone asks you why this supervisor didn't get problems told in detail when they asked you.


How about you combine both and still largely give a positive outlook with a subtle hint of needed support for an existing issue with a disclaimer

Great! No problem in general. I am working on figuring out issue X. I think I will be able to resolve it soon with the right support. I will keep you updated on that.

This way you have mentioned there is a problem. You have also mentioned you need support. You are actively working on it. And finally, you do need "right support" for it.

  • 2
    It's a lie giving the wrong feedback to the supervisor Jun 17, 2021 at 22:38
  • If someone told me something like this, I'd assume they're capable of solving this "not a problem" on their own. After all, you could be reaching out for support elsewhere.
    – Llewellyn
    Jun 22, 2021 at 19:08

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