poor communication in a mentorship-like relation



  • 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).



  • From the sheer size of the question - and from reading in and between the lines - I think you have a problem communicating via email.

    It sounds like you like to write long emails with multiple questions, and (based on the evidence we have) you like to ramble on instead of getting to the point.

    This causes 2 problems:

    • When you ramble on, and (re)state the obvious, then people may assume you don't really understand what you're talking about. After a while, they begin to think you're an idiot (excuse the bluntness) or that you're incompetent or unsuited for the task at hand.

    • When you ask multiple questions in an email then you invariably get part answers. Or multiple answers intermingled, or a single answer to multiple issues. Or people skip or miss a question. Result: you think you're being ignored, but because of the length and complexity, it may be you who is misreading the answer or it may be an innocent oversight.

    Putting the 2 together and you have a recipe for disaster: your 1-man team/mentoree probably groans out aloud every time he sees an email from you. So he shoots off some answers in the hope that (in his opinion) since you anyway don't understand what's going on, you won't notice missing info.

    And that's why he's not reporting to you - now that you're far away - he thinks you're incompetent and he can't face getting 100-page emails from you interlaced with endless questions. So he's cutting you out of the loop.

    By now the solution should be obvious.

    • If you have to communicate by email, keep it short and limit it to 1 or 2 (related) questions per email.
    • Start using face-to-face communication whenever possible.


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