How to speak up to a supervisor who is very stubborn and always mocking

I have two supervisors. One of them is very stubborn and always mocking my ideas. I have tolerated this for the last 1.5 years almost. I opted for a second supervisor because he doesn’t have more ideas about the direction I am moving into for the PhD. However, he is overly critical and not a good listener, and he always thinks he knows better than me. His overly critical nature hinders progress all the time. All his inputs and ideas are always in the air, and there is absolutely no proper study/ reference to back his claims. He likes to talk all the time, and if I ask him something, he always talks about what he knows and tries to focus on things that are not very important and makes a big deal out of it. I can’t explain his character in detail because he is one of a kind. I am generally very calm, and I am unable to argue because I don’t want to make a scene. I have seen some of his ex-master students standing up to him, but he becomes very emotional and takes things personally due to his ego issues. Although I have remained calm, I want to stand up for myself now in the most professional way. The things I want to convey are:

  1. Not to focus on things that are not important
  2. Not to talk about the same things every meeting that is not contributing
  3. Listen to me more/ talk less
  4. Admit when he doesn’t know things

I don’t know exactly how to address this professionally.

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@lostarmour Man… I definitely do not want to be in your shoes…

Although I recently dropped out from a Ph.D. program and my supervisor was very absent, I have worked as a coach dealing with different people every day. So here are my two cents about some topics.

Not to talk about the same things every meeting that is not contributing

  • After the meeting send him a summary of what you discussed and what was decided. That is already a way to document your evolution. When he goes back to some specific topic you can either mention to him that you already discussed this and ask him to check his email or print the email and carry it with you to “gently” shove it in his face that you discussed this topic one or two weeks ago. It may help if you do what he suggests in one week and before the meeting you send him the results / your explanation of why his suggestion was not appropriate to the situation. Keep in mind that considering he has a necessity for being right, this will shove in his face some of his mistakes and he might get emotional, even vindicative because you will have everything documented. Forget about people being rational because we are not. So tread mildly if you do this.

About the others, I’m with you about not standing up to him. This might work in some situations but it’s a very high gambit that if it pays off, is good, if don’t you are in big trouble.

One thing run through my mind while I was reading your email. How smart he is?? Because if your assessment is right about his ego, then he will use every time he has to show how brilliant he is by (1) talking as much as he can, and (2) never admitting he doesn’t know things. For example, have you tried to develop your ideas in one week and then, in your meeting with him, tell him that the given idea was his suggestion and see how it goes?? Or maybe you had this given idea because he inspired you when he suggested you do A or B?? Maybe give it a try starting with something small and see how it goes.

Even though I have an interest in research about organizational development, my opinion about academia, in general, is that they are a bunch of self-serving individuals fighting for the greatest spotlight. And it is definitely easier to sell yourself rather than do the work that will do it for you. It looks like he has been acting like this for a while and does not care about any kind of feedback. In short, from his perspective, you are the outlier here. So if he is not willing to change, you are definitely not the one who will do it just because you want it. My overall suggestion is to forget about working with him and focus on working on bypassing him. It is a messed up situation but sometimes you need to focus on what is possible rather than what is right.

Overall, I believe he needs you to stroke his ego. It is shameful but sometimes it is what it is. If you do not like his suggestions and he is missing the point by miles, switch to creating the impression he is hitting the point. That might give you some room in the future for doing what you want and maybe in the future for him to actually listen to you.

I hope I helped somehow!!