Mentored Now Wants To Be Seen As Independent

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a mentor who is controlling and a desire to be seen as a lead specialist:

I work in a highly specialized field where I am one of three such specialist in an office of around 100. I came to my position three and half years ago during a sort of “phasing out of the old guard.” I was new to the profession and was expected to work up in terms of duties and responsibilities over three years. Another specialist came in a year later who is older and more experienced than me. The third specialist, I will call him Paul, has been in the field 25 years, 15 of which in our office. Personally, I get along fantastically with him and truly value his expertise and experience.

Now I have reached the full performance level of my position and received my fair share of the workload. However, Paul either forgets or is unwilling to relinquish control of many of his projects that are now assigned to me. I honestly think it is a combination of the two. Furthermore, most people in our office have also been here a considerable amount of time and approach him in regards to my work. I honestly feel it is a knee-jerk reaction on their part, having always gone to him the past and unaware I am now the point of contact.

Paul either continues to work on the project without my knowledge or overly inserts himself into it. Additionally, if I disagree with Paul on my assignments, management will always take his opinion due to his experience. I understand experience holds a great deal of weight, but he is also very stuck in his ways and reluctant to embrace new techniques and methods.

It does not matter how many times I have told him I am now the lead specialist, the next time something comes up he’s right back at it. I have no issues with my other coworker, he is generally very considerate with my assignments and only interferes when asked. I believe Paul still sees me as the young trainee who he mentored the first couple years and has a hard time shedding that image. I also believe he is stubborn, forgetful, and unable to relinquish control of projects he once oversaw (understandable to a degree). How do I get Paul to relinquish control and see me as an equal? I would very much appreciate any advice on the matter.

Signed Want to be Equal

Dear Want to be Equal:

Congrats! In three years. you have achieved in a highly specialized field. In this age, those with in your specialization no doubt makes you in demand. You say Paul who has mentored you, “still sees me as the young trainee who he mentored the first couple years” and that he is won’t “relinquish control of projects. And no “matter how many times I have told him I am now the lead specialist,” he asserts his control of “projects that are now assigned to me.” You also appear frustrated that “if I disagree with Paul on my assignments, management will always take his opinion due to his experience.”

What you want is for Paul not to micromanage you and to be seen by as an equal. Also you want others in your office to now come to you as a “point of contact.” I have done my best to use your own words to get a picture of what are your concerns.

My advice is meant to help you reflect on your situation–hopefully to gain an outside perspective that will enable you to cope with the frustrations you feel and to find increasing satisfaction in a career for which you have already earned specialist skills. With this understood, I make the following observations and suggestions for your consideration:  

  1. +In many ways, you are in a sweet spot: in a highly specialized field working with experienced older coworkers, with whom you get along well.
  2. +If I understand, you are aware of and want to “embrace new techniques and methods.”  
  3. -You have learned that Paul, who mentored you during your first two years and who has 25 years of experience, is set in his ways. Your attempt to change him have been futile. He continues to treat you as new to the profession. My advice is don’t challenge him. Don’t disagree with Paul on assignments; don’t expect management not to take his opinion due to his experience over yours.
  4. +You want his respect and will get it as you too become increasingly experienced. Naturally you want to be treated as an equal, but probably that will not happen soon, if ever. But nevertheless you can shape your career by bringing new methods and technology. Are you able to grab training and earn certification that is featured by your profession?  
  5. +Have you considered seeking Paul as a long-time mentor? I suggest Paul appreciates being the experienced one to which you turned and others turn. Rather than disagree, might you ask how he thinks you are doing and if there is a way that you will be seen be seen as a lead specialist to which others come to?  In short, rather than assert yourself as “the lead specialist,” accept the fact you are younger and that you want and will value his career direction advice, within your current work organization or in seeking opportunities elsewhere.
  6. ?Seek advice from above and/or from those in your workplace you have come to respect. You say you were hired in sort of a “phasing out of the old guard.” Have you maintained contact with the one who hired you and or who are managing your unit? Probably you have had an annual or semiannual review. Is this not a time to learn how well you are meeting expectations and how your future worth is seen? Have you sought counsel about how you might add value to what you do? Have you tactfully shared your desire to be someone others seek out because of your good work?
  7. +Think WE. Independent-mindedness is good but it is realized more when you think Interdependent-mindedness. From what you have shared about yourself and work, I sense you are interdependent-minded; however, possibly you can become more specific by finding ways to cut wasted time, wasted supplies, wasted energy, wasted money. Think innovation. Even that might mean engaging coworkers in making your environment more attractive and pleasant.
  8. +Think team. It takes a team to make your work group deliver the best possible–making internal and external customers more than satisfied with your service and products.

Please know I know these thoughts are made from a distance and lack information that only you know. If some of them make sense, good. If they spur you to assert yourself in other ways, great. Do feel free to respond and update me on what you do. I know only you can answer your question.  I have contacts with professionals and will forward more thoughts I get from those with whom I share (anonymously) your situation. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. –William Gorden

Second Opinion by Guest Respondent:

Unfortunately you have very little control over how Paul sees you and trying to change the perceptions of others is both very difficult, time consuming and rarely works.  In the end, you are really dealing with a ‘political’ issue when you perceive that “…management will always take to his opinion …”. I don’t see that changing unless and until Paul leaves.

Ultimately, you need to decide whether or not you want to stay at your present job/company and accept that things will basically continue as is until Paul leaves or you can look at other employment opportunities.  In almost all cases, you are likely to make more money, far more quickly, by changing jobs and/or companies. The reality is that you now have enough experience where you can enter a new company and will likely be perceived as the ‘leader’.  That said, if you are very satisfied with your present circumstances with the sole exception of your situation with Paul, then you can ‘stick it out’ and wait for Paul’s exit. But I would caution you that going to your manager about Paul is very likely to fail and will only cause you to be viewed as the problem.  

Bottom line, learn to live as best you can with your present circumstances or find another company where you may well make more money and enter being viewed well by the management that hired you.

–Mark Mindell, PhD and HR Manager with different companies