my boss wants me to collaborate with my awful coworker

A reader writes:

I have a coworker who started a few months ago. He and I are responsible for similar types of projects, but we rarely collaborate because the projects don’t readily lend themselves to teamwork. Occasionally, we may consult each other if we hit a technical snag with the software.

For some reason, my boss has started pushing me to work more closely with him on my projects. However, I find his finished products to be subpar, and I wouldn’t want my name associated with his work. Other coworkers seek me out specifically to assist them, even when I’m slammed and he isn’t.

Do you have any thoughts on how I can 1) get my boss to stop pushing the point and 2) let her know that I prefer to stick to my way of doing things without disrespecting my coworker?

Also, why might a manager start insisting on collaboration out of the blue?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 99 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. TheBeetsMotel

    OP – Is it possible you’ve become a bit blinkered and “my way or the highway” about the way you produce work, and your co-worker simply falls outside of the way you’d prefer to do things?

    You say you find his deliverables to be subpar – is that a view shared by others?

    Reply
  2. MicroManagered

    You might hear that she knows his work isn’t great and that that’s why she wants to pair him with you more.

    I am really curious about this piece because we all know one of the hallmarks of a bad manager is gossiping/griping about one direct report to the other. But on the other hand, one my personal pet peeves for a manager is when they ignore the problem of a low-performer, or worse, try to convince you the problem doesn’t exist.

    How do managers decide it’s the right time to validate their employee’s concerns about a low-performing peer?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think it’s in how you frame it. Something like “Bob doesn’t have as much experience in teapot design and I’d like him to have the opportunity to learn from working with you” is fine. But you wouldn’t want to say “Bob is on thin ice and this is his final chance to improve.”

      Reply
    2. McWhadden

      I think it makes sense to acknowledge quality issues in a very general way if you are requiring two people to work together.

      “Seymour is still new and he isn’t quite up to the standards we require from our projects. I think he could learn a lot from you. And he might be able to help with some of your work load.”

      Yeah, the OP is still stuck working with someone she doesn’t want to. Sometimes bosses make us do stuff we don’t want to do. But at least then she knows the boss is aware that any low quality stems from him.

      Reply
      1. Dawson

        Unfortunately, it’s a fact of work life that you have to work with people you don’t want to. This might be a great opportunity for OP to practice her skills in that area.

        You can often surprise yourself at what you can learn from someone else, both the good ones and the subpar ones.

        Reply
    3. InfoSec SemiPro

      I find it really difficult to balance “handling a low performer with dignity” and “looking like I’m ignoring low performance”

      I’m never ignoring low performance. But I’m also not going to tell another team member “Oh yeah, Jane hasn’t been turning in work on time for months so I’m starting a PIP on Monday.” I need to hear how my staff is working with each other, but I’m not always in a position to give my full perspective back. Usually, I sincerely thank people for their valuable feedback, for bringing this situation to my attention and then ask if they have anything else I should be aware of. I have brought up in general that I do performance management pretty privately, that if your performance is not where I want it to be that I will tell you, and that actual firing people for low performance isn’t going to happen overnight, there’s a process. (There are insta – firing circumstances, but I’m always happier when people work out how to perform at their best rather than having to go through firing someone and then hiring again.)

      I keep hoping that is enough, and that people can generally connect not working in a team that has low performers with their management actually managing, even without bright signs around “Jane was Managed Out.”

      Reply
      1. Lucille B.

        I like something along the lines of “we are aware there are some issues and I’m working with X to handle those.” I also like to remind our staff that my door is always open and I don’t mind them venting if they absolutely need to, but I can’t vent back at them about their co-workers.

        Reply
      2. Amy

        I think most people can tell. My managers have never said anything about other coworkers’ performance, really, but just by working together we generally have a sense of who is a strong performer and who is struggling. And when a struggling person leaves on short notice and gives vague answers to ‘So where are you headed next?’, you get a sense that they likely were encouraged to resign/got managed out. (Not that everyone who gives short notice or leaves a job without something else lined up was fired–but when everything lines up, people can put two and two together.)

        Reply
      3. I'm A Little TeaPot

        Realistically, I need to either see improvement or the person gone to not get frustrated with mgmt as well as the low performer. Venting can help some. Being told that mgmt is aware and working on it can help. But if I don’t see results, nothing is going to fix that.

        Also, I’m not good at dealing with people who are struggling. My instinct is to get frustrated and do it myself. I try to control that, but it is hard. Especially when I’m responsible to the manager for the work product you’re doing badly.

        Reply
    4. Anon for anon

      On my team we have Teapot Testers, Senior Teapot Testers and the Teapot Team Lead. I am a Senior Teapot Tester. I do one on ones with 2 of our Teapot Testers and then in my one on ones with Teapot Team Lead we discuss their performance, progress, issues etc.

      Early on when I was first given this assignment, I was not quite sure how to handle low performance. But I brought it up with my Team Lead that I had noticed that one of my reports often overlooked items in an assignment and didn’t do a particularly thorough job with them. Team Lead said he had noticed the same thing. But then we discussed how to help him do a more thorough job. I ended up going back to the Teapot Tester and proposing some changes in how we communicated that have really worked out well. Part of it was us needing to be a little more explicit and detailed in our requirements and part of it was Teapot Tester needing to pay more attention when reading through the assignments (we switched to a checklist format for some of his more mundane tasks which has really helped him). He has improved a lot.

      The other Teapot Tester who reports to me failed to meet his goals last quarter. I discussed at length with him how to prevent it in the future and kept Team Lead fully informed. Part of it was that the Teapot Tester had not set a realistic goal for himself but did not realize it and I did not either (this particular Teapot Tester is on a different part of the team than I am as far as what product we work on, the goal would have been realistic for me with my level of experience and duties, but for his level of experience and his particular duties it was not). It was a really good learning experience for both me and him.

      (This is my first time with reports; I was only promoted to Senior Teapot Tester 6 months ago.)

      I’m not saying this is particularly something that would help in this situation–but sometimes a low performer needs some more guidance or to be asked what would help them produce higher quality work.

      Of course other times there isn’t much you can do without the willingness of the low performer to change.

      Reply
      1. Been There, Done That

        Good for you!

        It’s so frustrating to be trying to do your best job and to need information, support, and maybe some encouragement to get there, and to get chewed on instead.

        Reply
    5. Jennifer Thneed

      In this case, the manager isn’t bringing it up, and isn’t chatting about it publically or casually. *That’s* a bad manager.

      Also, acknowledging someone’s weak spots is not the same as gossiping or griping about them. We all have weak spots. It’s not a moral weakness, it’s about being human.

      Reply
      1. MicroManagered

        I get all that.

        I was wondering, in a general way sparked by the sentence I quoted, about how a good manager gauges when it’s appropriate to acknowledge that there’s a low performer on the team. On the one hand, a good manager manages performance issues discreetly and doesn’t discuss details with people who don’t need to be privy to those details. On the other, unmanaged low performers can cause a lot of resentment, as can the appearance of a manager who doesn’t know or doesn’t care “what’s really going on” on her team.

        It seems like a tough spot to be in: your high performer has reservations and concerns about being paired with a low performer, but you have to try something… Do you keep the positive spin or validate the concerns? Again, not making assumptions about this particular scenario, just wondering aloud a bit.

        Reply
        1. Stellaaaaa

          I think that if the manager is placing some of the onus of training Bob on OP, it’s not wrong or toxic for the manager to explain the goals of that training. Managers should not be spilling dirt about team members to each other, but managers should absolutely be sharing notes with staffers who are being lifted (even temporarily) into supervisory or team-lead positions.

          IMO it’s perfectly fine to say things like, “Bob has a lot of talent but he often forgets to proofread and I’d like you to teach him your process,” or “He has good ideas but needs a crash course in Photoshop” to reasonable staffers at any level, so long as it’s the truth.

          Reply
          1. AthenaC

            I would agree with this – in the past I have had other managers tell me things in confidence about others’ performance when it’s relevant to my ability to coach them / work with them. In my position it comes across as helpful information rather than gossip, especially when it’s tailored to our specific situation.

            Reply
  3. Fleeb

    Remember in school when teachers would pair the good students with the ones who for whatever reason weren’t so good at their schoolwork, hoping that the good student would help the other? I feel like that’s what’s happening here.

    Reply
    1. AndersonDarling

      It would be so much easier if teachers said, “Fergus is having a hard time with long division. Can you walk through a few problem with him? Then he could help you with your spelling assignment?” It would probably teach students that we all learn at different rates and we should help each other. What a wonderful world…

      Reply
      1. Temperance

        I was a good student, but am not and was not good at helping other kids. I have a hard time explaining things that seem simple to me and was way worse as a child.

        Reply
        1. Engineer Girl

          This. A child does not know how to teach. And hoping that somehow the good student will somehow rub off on the bad student is magical delusional thinking. Worse – it is holding the good student back.

          Teachers – you have just as much an obligation to help a good student reach their potential as you do the poorer one. Holding the good one back to help the poor one fails both students.

          Reply
          1. esra (also a Canadian)

            Yea, let’s be real. They’re just dragging those grades up. Which is irritating in school, but rather more so in the workplace.

            Reply
          2. Wintermute

            I have a very different opinion, to be honest.

            If you REALLY grok something, understand it on an intuitive and complete level, you can teach it. So it’s helpful to have high performers learn to teach, even on a rudimentary informal level, because when you can break down the ideas and communicate them clearly that’s when you move from skill to mastery.

            It’s the fact that you have to break down an idea to its components and be able to clearly explain how those components interact increases your own proficiency. It’s the same as when you ask someone to explain a process backwards, to see if they really understand all the parts or just memorized the material (a trick I’ve seen in technical interviews, in this case phone call process flow through a cellular switch, but starting at connection and ending with origination rather than the more normal process of starting when a number is dialed and finishing with it being connected to the called party).

            Reply
            1. Temperance

              I really don’t agree with this. For example, I’m an excellent couponer. It’s one of my best skills. My MIL has asked me to teach her, and I can’t. Because, to me, the entire process is SO SIMPLE – read the store’s advertisements for the week and compare that to the coupons in your binder, and google “coupon matchups” is just so easy that I don’t understand the need to be “taught”.

              As a child, I was very easily frustrated with classmates who weren’t as quick as I was to understand a concept, and I would have much rather focused on my own mastery than trying, and failing, to teach another classmate. It didn’t help my popularity, either.

              Reply
          3. Optimistic Prime

            There’s actually evidence that helping less well-performing students out actually boosts the performance of the better student. Asking people to assist those who are not doing as well as they are is not “holding them back.” And I say that as an excellent student who was often asked to tutor or help others.

            Reply
            1. Anon anon anon

              I think it depends on how it’s done. I got a lot out of being a volunteer tutor at my school. It was treated like an actual job even though it was just an hour here and there. I could put it on my resume. On the other hand, when high and low performers are paired together for something like a group project where everyone in the group gets the same grade, it can create resentment. Teachers can counteract that in how they grade and how they coach the students. But there’s potential for things to go wrong. I think the idea is to reward the high performers for helping and be careful not to take advantage of them or put them in situations where they have to do someone else’s work in order to save their own grades.

              Reply
        2. Turtle Candle

          Plus, I was a good student, but unpopular. Often the struggling student was far more popular than me. To teach someone they have to have at least minimal respect for you; in those cases, the other student had less than no respect for me, and resented having a socially awkward doof try to teach them things. And I had zero authority to make them do anything, so….

          It can work, to pair a struggling person with a more experienced one, but the struggling person needs at least baseline respect for the “teacher,” and the “teacher” needs at least minimal authority, or it’s a recipe for dragging them both down.

          Reply
          1. abra

            i had this happen to me as an *adult* — i was asked to assist a colleague after-hours during a work training, because he was having problems with the material and holding back the training, and he was ‘cooler’ than me, and it was just a giant mess.

            Reply
            1. Lora

              Yep. From kindergarten on, I have been assigned to “help” struggling fellow students and colleagues, and I was also the weird kid who got picked last for dodgeball teams.

              It never ends, I am sorry to say. All you can do is try to walk them through the process a few times and be patient, and refer them to any books or websites or whatever that might be of help, but some people really believe in their hearts that the day they graduated was the day they never had to learn anything new again ever.

              Teaching is a skill with a whole entire psychology and a half behind it, which nobody is born knowing. It seems like everyone at least sorta acknowledges this when they talk about trying to get their kid into this or that really good school, but then in everyday things it’s no big deal and any fool should be able to teach.

              Reply
              1. Indoor Cat

                This bothers me so much!

                I was always miles ahead in reading and writing, and squat average in everything else (except, er, art, kind-of. In the elementary school sense of, another kid would ask me to draw Sailor Moon fighting Spiderman, and I could bust that out without a reference and they’d be very impressed. This was the saving grace that kept me from being a “loser” as a little kid, and I eventually befriended other artsy types).

                But, anyway, I was often asked to help other students who were poor writers or bad at reading comprehension, but all I knew how to say was, “I dunno why, it just is.” Which helped nobody and made us both a bit embarrassed.

                Eventually, (I mean, literally in college), I spent four years working in my University’s Writing Commons, which was top ranked in the Midwest. It was so highly ranked because the professor who ran it was on point. An entire semester-long class on grammar and pedagogy was required prior to working there, and there was continual learning and creation of resources as we went along (we were encouraged to focus on specific kinds of writing learning, like the complexity of Masters’ Thesis, or ESL, or sentence structure and rhythm, and then teach each other what we learned [sometimes from trial and error] about best practices when it came to teaching writing).

                After four years I eventually got ESL certified, and I feel pretty competent at figuring out where people are getting stuck, dealing with the highest order concern first, explaining the first step in clear terms, giving them a straightforward question to practice, troubleshooting their exercise, then leveling up to the next, slightly more complex step or concern.

                It’s a *skill* and I am hardly a master, just passably decent.

                So why on earth would you expect a student who’s never learned that skill to be able to execute the task of teaching better than you? Especially since, most likely, that student *didn’t* learn how to write from one-on-one instruction and troubleshooting; rather, she probably picked it up via osmosis by reading a lot. She doesn’t even know what good teaching looks like since she herself wasn’t explicitly taught these rules!

                UGHhhhh, makes me so mad.

                Reply
          2. Ramona Flowers

            I have never forgiven the primary school teacher who told the other kids to bring their spelling books to me (you asked for a spelling you didn’t know, she wrote it in the book and you copied it underneath) when she was out of the room. My nickname was ‘precise’ for years.

            Reply
        3. SusanIvanova

          Absolutely. When I taught karate I had two teenage brothers in the intermediate class – one was a natural, the other struggled with the simplest things. Ask the natural how he did some complicated move, and it was “I just do it” – because for him, it was. Ask the other, you’d get a detailed and very useful description because he’d had to think about every tiny move involved.

          Reply
          1. ladydoc

            This is an interesting anecdote. I’m a lifelong dedicated nonathlete who in her late 30s took up aerial training. I have to do the same thing as the struggling martial artist–I have to think my way through everything. I can give you a dissertation on the muscle groups, postures, and movements necessary to do aerial moves. Because I literally have to think about all of that every. single. time.
            On the other hand, I was terrible at teaching classmates in college, because I was a natural at academics. I don’t know how to teach you how to solve Maxwell’s equations. You just look at it and do it, you know? Not very helpful to others.

            Reply
          2. On Fire

            My brother breezed through high school – straight A’s while only doing the assignments, i.e., not *studying.* Thus, he never *learned* to study, and when he got to college he struggled, because an exam might cover 6-8 chapters instead of one or two.

            I, on the other hand, had to study in high school (and do extra math problems for practice) for my grades. College? Easy peasy. I had the skills.

            For OP, I suspect maybe boss wants to expose your coworker to your skill set so he can learn your more efficient/thorough/better processes. Fitting to my anecdote: he’s “in college” now and has to learn to study.

            Reply
      2. Captain Obvious

        This naively assumes that Fergus is good at spelling. In the real world, it’s more likely to be that Fergus is struggling both with math and long division.

        Reply
    2. InfoSec SemiPro

      For some jobs, that’s the job though.

      I have staff who are better or worse at various skills, and whose job requires basically constant learning and development. Which means I have some more senior staff where part of their job is mentoring and coaching. That’s part of what I pay them for. As people are working up toward the more senior titles, they also need to practice coaching skills so they will have those skills when they get the titles that require them. So its not exactly an accident when I put pairs of people on a project who are stronger or weaker.

      Also, sometimes the team gets pretty swamped and I don’t have a highly skilled resource I can dedicate to a project that needs some higher level skills, so I give it to a more available but less skilled person, with a higher skilled person as guide/mentor. The quality of the end project won’t be equal to that of if the highly skilled person just did it themselves and will probably take longer – but it will get done to an adequate level and I’ll be closer to having more highly skilled people for that kind of project.

      I’m not particularly sneaky about this though – I don’t try to pretend that highly skilled staff are the same as staff who are learning that skill, but just sitting nearby.

      Reply
      1. NotAnotherManager!

        This is a good point – our job descriptions actually include a bullet that says that they will train and mentor less experienced staff, which sometimes is teaching a particular skill and other times is bringing along a new hire. I also do some training on delegation, training, and mentoring to help that along. Training doesn’t just come from above, either – one of my newer folks figured out a really cool fix to a tedious problem and ended up teaching it to a coworker 10 years further into her career (and saving her hours of work in the process), and both walked away happy.

        Reply
    3. NotAnotherManager!

      I hated that particular strategy in school, but (a) school tends to be more about individual performance and learning versus work being more team-oriented and (b) there is actual value to being able to explain things to others and developing a feeling of confidence and pride at being able to help others. Implemented as a teaching tool rather than a crutch for the teacher, it’s not a terrible strategy.

      I tell all my new-graduate hires that what we do is a team sport – while we can and do recognize individuals for above-and-beyond contributions, good outcomes for our clients are the result of multiple people with different strengths and weaknesses working together. If they are interested in more individualized work assignments, it’s not a good fit. I also get feedback from new employees that working along side strong performers is a very effective way for them to learn (as opposed to classroom training), and the more experienced folks get to add a bullet about mentoring and supervision to their resume.

      Reply
    4. LadyKelvin

      My freshman biology teacher would do this, she would let us pick lab partners and then say, not you LadyKelvin, you have to work with WorstStudentintheClass. And then I would either get in trouble for doing all the work myself because WorstStudent was a bad student because he couldn’t be bothered to do anything (he was also dumb, but I could have worked with someone dumb) or I’d fail the lab because he wouldn’t do his part. It brought my grade down unfairly because she thought it would be good for him to work with me and that I could help him pass (it was his second time through the class). Needless to say I was very unhappy that year.

      Reply
      1. Mike C.

        I had much better luck in that area because the worst student in my biology class liked to dissect the frogs. So when that lab came up I ran up to him, said, “you deal with the frog, I deal with the paperwork” and he was like, “f*ck yeah”. Divide and conquer!

        Reply
        1. Luku

          Ahahah that’s what I did with the sheep eyeball and all that…. never had to touch the formaldehyde-soaked organs/critters myself! Thankfully…. I was vegetarian for 6 years just because I had moved out of my parents house, had to cook for myself, and I refused to touch raw meat :P (eventually I got over it)

          I do agree though that as the person who was supposed to be the ‘good influence’…. making the ‘bad influence’ students your problem is garbage. YOU are the teacher, YOU work with the bad student. I am doing well. Why punish me with making me nag and harass the bad student to do a decent job when he clearly DGAF? It was so crappy so often.

          Reply
      2. Temperance

        That’s so unfair! Grades are so important for scholarships and college admissions, and your jerkass bio teacher could have really had a negative impact on your GPA.

        Reply
    5. Amy

      As a good student, I feel like that never worked. I just ended up doing the vast majority of the project, since I couldn’t count on my partner to do their share. It boosted my partner’s grades, but didn’t necessarily boost their skills or understanding, and it meant I had to do a lot of extra work. Group school projects always felt like a punishment.

      Reply
      1. Amy

        As an adult in the workplace, if my manager asked me to help a coworker get better at X, I’d be happy to do so…but that’s a different thing than “do this in collaboration with Bob,” and if they said the latter when they meant the former, it would throw me off. If we’re collaborating as equals on a project, I expect us to be doing roughly similar amounts of work, and I expect that my partner will know their job well enough that they don’t need me to explain how to do it or monitor their progress. If I’m helping someone learn something, I’ll plan to spend a lot more time explaining things, showing them what I’m doing, and checking on their work to make sure it’s up to par; I also need them to know that I’m supposed to be teaching them this thing, so they know to listen when I tell them how to do it. They’re just not the same thing, and I need to know which to plan and set aside time for.

        Reply
        1. Kyrielle

          Plus, if you are explicitly teaching, then you expect to be evaluated as if you are teaching someone, not as if you were working as equals to get the end result you did in the time you did.

          Group projects in school were *heck* when the teachers did that.

          Reply
        2. Ramona Flowers

          Yep. I love being asked to help, train, mentor, guide or coach people. I love trying to help people learn things. I would not love being told to just do our projects together.

          Reply
      2. Hey Karma, Over here.

        They were. It saved the teacher from having to grade 30 individual projects (and with multiple classes that could be 60-90). It had nothing to do with collaboration, it was all about being able to realistically grade major project.

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        1. Optimistic Prime

          They’re not mutually exclusive; I think most teachers who assign group projects genuinely believe they are achieving both ends: teaching students to work together and also reducing their grading load. The problem is I think most teachers don’t really think critically about the group project and how to plan a really good one that will ensure that all the students have to work together.

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          1. That Lady

            I’m a teacher. I have my students work collaboratively on informal assignments in class (“check with a peer; are you both correct?”, “read together and annotate,” “check all your incorrect answers, make corrections, and write an explanation for what the difference is between your incorrect answer and the correct one,” etc.) and have my students sit in small groups as a daily practice. Collaboration and communication are exceptionally important skills to learn, but IMO when it comes time to formally assess which skills a student does and does not have and/or where their individual strengths/weaknesses lie, it should not be done as a collaborative exercise.

            Reply
      3. Marillenbaum

        Captain Awkward mentioned that this is why, as a professor, she organizes group projects to put the high achievers in a group together/the same with struggling students. That way, one person is less likely to be at a vastly different level and gets stuck with all the work, or largely ignored.

        Reply
        1. Indoor Cat

          I loved that post.

          The best school projects I ever had (and there were two which I thoroughly enjoyed) were ones where we were allowed to choose our own groups. Sure, this meant we were working with our friends, which probably meant some groups got pretty off task. But in both the projects I’m thinking of, our group went above and beyond because we enjoyed hanging out together and so didn’t mind spending, say, an entire week and weekend making an elaborate video project about the decade of 1910-1919 (even though an option for that project was to do something much simpler, like a PowerPoint and a handout).

          I still remember that Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner in 1911, which prompted a migration to the American Southwest. That project was fifteen years ago and I remember all the lines. Whereas I can’t for the life of me remember the difference between the magna carta and the Townshend duties, despite my love of the ‘Hamilton’ musical and the fact that those were both on the AP Exam.

          School projects can be excellent and memorable, but being forced to work with people who all dislike each other removes any chance of that.

          Reply
        2. Another CA Fan

          Can someone point me toward that post? I know I’ve read it before, but no matter which keywords I search, I haven’t been able to find it again.

          Reply
          1. Indoor Cat

            It is this post: https://captainawkward.com/2017/08/10/1007-holiday-chore-free-riders/

            Here is the relevant part:

            “I used to try to balance the groups regarding abilities, like, spreading the really ambitious students out and also spreading the less ambitious/focused students out. Then I stopped. The ambitious students were used to carrying the load group projects. The less ambitious students were used to hiding behind other people. Now, while this is not a perfect science, I try to split them this way:

            Ambitious students = all together! Let them experience the novelty of having fellow organized & assertive people working with them, and people who will challenge their ideas.

            Least ambitious students = all together! They can’t hide. The project might falter, but more often, at least one of them will rise and get yon shit together.

            Most introverted students = all together! They get to experience not being talked over and also break the cycle of “whatever you want to do is fine.”

            I would never, on pain of death, tell you which group is which. (My colleague SK has a little survey where she asks students to self-identify re: “I am here to have fun and learn a little bit” vs. “I am here to make the greatest possible film”)

            I leave this here for you if it’s useful, and if you end up creating the chore groups. Maybe it’s worth having a day where nothing much gets done and y’all order in vs. “balancing” the skills.”

            Reply
      4. NotAnotherManager!

        I loathed group projects from elementary school all the way through grad school because it was so, so much easier to do it myself and control the quality of the project. (I’m sure I’ve mentioned here the time a grad school teammate brought her husband in to argue her point on a decision we were making on an assignment.)

        A decade out of grad school, I see the point. Learning to work in a group with the social loafers, the equally high-achiever who thinks their idea is better than yours, the person who’s trying but just doesn’t get it — that’s developing your emotional intelligence and important teamwork skills. The problem is when the teacher doesn’t structure the project correctly, provide (especially younger) students with a framework for collaboration, or step in when there is a problem – or doesn’t allow the teammates to comment on each other’s contributions post-project. I can almost guarantee you that my feedback sheets said I was smart, contributed, and did good work but tended to think my ideas were best (duh!) and drove everyone a little crazy with my hyper-organization and status trackers. In middle/high school, I’m certain that the feedback forms would have included the word “bossy.”

        Reply
        1. Sally

          But when you’re going to grad school after having been in the workplace for five years or more… group work feels condescending and tedious. I don’t know. I’m in grad school now and I find the amount of group projects shocking compared to when I was in undergrad over a decade ago – there are *so* many. Are professors really so overextended now they need to take this many grading shortcuts? It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t help me learn the subject matter.

          Reply
          1. Optimistic Prime

            Well, most professors teaching graduate courses are primarily rewarded for their research, not teaching. So from a cynical point of view, anything they can do to reduce their grading load is extra time they can spend pushing out another paper or getting another grant, which is really what their tenure and promotion relies upon. Yes, they really are that overextended.

            Secondly, most professors have never worked outside of academia before. They have a vague idea that working with others is a skill that non-academic/corporate employers value, but they have no idea what that actually looks like in practice. So some graduate professors assign group work on the premise that their students will have to work in teams or groups when they do enter the workplace…but because they don’t actually know what that looks like, they don’t know how to structure group projects to be anything like a real collaborative work project.

            Generally speaking graduate students are in school because they want to be (as opposed to undergrads, who often feel like they have to be). I found group projects in grad school to be far better than group projects in college or high school, although I never really hated either, probably because I was born to be a PM. I’m pretty good at motivating people to do stuff.

            Reply
            1. Agnes

              Professors are also told, over and over, by employers that working in groups is a skill they want graduates to have. This does not represent total disengagement from the job market.

              Reply
          2. NotAnotherManager!

            I was in grad school after having been in the workforce for a decade – and I tolerated the grad school group projects better than I did in undergrad because it did seem more applicable to my job. I think that assuming the only reason professors assign group projects is because they’re lazy and don’t want to grade is unfair.

            Ours were well-structured and relevant to the coursework. They also resulted in professional portfolios that could be used in job searches. My program had both a part-time program and a full-time program that included practicum/internships/projects (I was working full-time and could only participate in the former), and the partner organizations that were subsidizing student tuition in the full-time program wanted teams, not individuals.

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        2. Artemesia

          My first husband had a group project in law school with one other guy. I ended up staying up all night to type my husband’s project so he could get it in and not be late and then had to go teach 6 high school classes on zero sleep. His partner didn’t manage to get his piece done and so the stupid thing got marked down for late anyway.

          Yeah I was stupid then. But at least he was very soon the ex.

          Reply
        3. Amy

          I definitely understand the usefulness of being able to work with a variety of people! My problem was really more that my childhood group projects didn’t teach those lessons. They mostly taught me that I couldn’t trust others to do reasonable work and should just plan to do the entire thing myself, and taught my classmates that they could get away with not doing any work if their partner(s) cared more about the outcome than they did. Those were actually lessons I had to UNlearn when I hit the workforce. (There was also no such thing as feedback forms or the teacher checking in for problems, so it’s probably true that they weren’t well-structured. But I think that’s more common than not, when it comes to group projects for school.)

          I wish we’d been paired up the way Marillenbaum/Captain Awkward suggest–that would have left plenty of room to navigate different personalities and styles without adding an extra layer of not being able to trust our partners to try.

          Reply
          1. Falling Diphthong

            I couldn’t trust others to do reasonable work and should just plan to do the entire thing myself, and taught my classmates that they could get away with not doing any work if their partner(s) cared more about the outcome than they did.

            Perfect summary of why so many smart adults have a white hot negative response to any reminder of the group work of their school days.

            Alison has noted this before, but it’s pretty much the opposite of how matching people up in a functional workplace operates–one person can’t do the whole project while the others check Facebook, the different team members have different skills and so working in a group actually makes logical sense, the consequence of not doing the work is that you get fired rather than that all your coworkers get a lower grade.

            Reply
            1. Been There, Done That

              You said it!

              Another hurdle is that the person you’re trying to coach might resist you. When I first transferred into my job, my new boss asked me to show a coworker how to open a job ticket on the computer because it had just become part of her duties. It was the opposite of rocket science. I’d done it for years and she’d never done it–and she ARGUED with me the whole time I was trying to walk her through. “This ought to be done like this, I’m not comfortable doing it like that.” Crikey!

              Reply
        4. INSEAD alum

          “A decade out of grad school, I see the point. Learning to work in a group with the social loafers, the equally high-achiever who thinks their idea is better than yours, the person who’s trying but just doesn’t get it — that’s developing your emotional intelligence and important teamwork skills.”

          There’s something to be said for this notion in the context of professional school degrees, especially the MBA. There is much less to be said for it in academic graduate school programs, where the point is to train people to become experts in their field and to produce scholarly research, not to collaborate in teams.

          Reply
    6. Just Another Techie

      Except in school the teacher has an obligation to help both the good student and the poor student achieve to the maximum of their individual ability, so the pair-up there is often a disservice to both students (and a lazy cop-out). In a work setting, the boss has an obligation to the customer (whether external or internal) to deliver a product by whatever means is most efficient. Sometimes that means tagging in a high performer to clean up a low performer’s mess, sometime that means delegating the work of supervising the low-performer or junior staffer to someone more productive or more senior, sometimes it means managing out the low performer, sometimes it means prioritizing some clients’ work to be assigned to the best performers and letting a lower performer do a merely adequate job on other clients’ work. Yes there’s an obligation to coach and train your reports, but it’s secondary to getting the work done, and not comparable to a teacher’s obligation to their students.

      Reply
      1. Engineer Girl

        In some ways it is. Hold back a high performer too much and they’ll leave. And now you only have the low performer to do the customers work.
        What I see most is mediocre managers saying “we’re a team!” while not holding team members accountable. That translates to the high performers doing most of the work and receiving 0.5% higher pay raise.

        Reply
        1. Been There, Done That

          Gold star for you. My, er, rather idiosyncratic and unorthodox manager boosts her middling performers with the pushiest personalities and biggest mouths. OK, so you sent a fax; don’t expect a Nobel for it. A really smart former coworker (who went on to better things) and I once discussed her “brains-ism,” meaning she discriminates against her smart reports and runs them out of there.

          Reply
      2. NotAnotherManager!

        According to our public schools, the teacher’s obligation is to ensure that all kids learn what is required for their grade level, they do not have the resources to significantly differentiate instruction, and, when there is a delta, they must make sure the poor student gains to pass standardized tests and will do their best to challenge the above-average kids — and we are in a large, well-funded, well-regarded school system. We pulled one of my children from public school because they were not able to meet that particular kid’s needs but were still within the acceptable range of what the school was required by law to provide (even through my kid had yet to pass state assessments). My teacher friends tell me that they do not have the time or resources to individualize instruction and ensure that they “achieve the maximum of their individual ability”. Expecting most schools to be able to do that is setting yourself up for disappointment for what you actually get. We are very lucky to be able to swing private school for the kid that needed that level of individualized instruction.

        Reply
  4. Agent Diane

    is it possible the manager has noticed OP gets asked for help all the time, even when slammed, and wants Bob to get to the same standard so colleagues approach Bob for help too? She’s looking at stressloads.

    What would happen if OP said “I’m slammed, see if Bob can help?”

    Reply
    1. SusanIvanova

      They’d say “we already know he can’t”?

      Coworker Coffeecup was supposed to be on the same level as the rest of us – on paper he was, anyway, and he could talk it up no end. Ex-managers say he could actually produce work if someone was on him all the time to keep at it. On a very self-directed team, that was unthinkable.

      The last straw for me was when I spent two weeks waiting for him to do the tea side of our tea/coffee collaboration: two pieces of software that needed to talk to each other. He had nothing else to do but this one job, and it was critical to other teams that we get this done. My side had gone as far as it could without the info from his side, in an OS I hadn’t used in 20 years. But after hearing nothing but “working on it”, I hit google, discovered that 20 years didn’t mean out of date, and in 2 days (with a bit of help from one of the other blocked tea experts) had both sides of the software working. I told my manager I would never ever work with him again.

      So I’m seeing myself in the LW, except that my annoying coworker’s work wasn’t just subpar, it didn’t exist.

      Reply
      1. Indoor Cat

        Wait, so what was Coffeecup doing all day? If he only had the one job and he wasn’t doing it…was he just sitting around? Did he get fired eventually?

        Reply
        1. Wintermute

          In software, it’s possible he was banging his head against a great number of unworkable approaches or letting himself get drawn into analysis paralysis where he was reading up on documentation (that he may have barely understood or not understood) and this lead him to look for other documentation, and so on.

          Or he could have been doing nothing…

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          1. SusanIvanova

            Oh, he understood it – he could talk your head off, and he wasn’t BSing. And he was mega-social – you’d stop by his office for a simple question, and next thing you know it half an hour had gone by. I know he submitted at least some code, because the first time he had something up for code review it went back and forth for days because he was arguing over every little detail, right down to the non-negotiable ones about house formatting style.

            In this particular case I have no clue because the result I found was about a page worth of code. Call it 10 minutes of google searching, a couple of hours to set up a teaOS build machine, an hour to set up and run the sample app and then tweak it for that specific case, another hour of collaborating with the other tea guy to figure out where to put it. Maybe he was looking for the most beautiful solution ever, maybe he was trying to absorb our huge existing code base instead of asking someone for help – all I knew was I went from zero to solution in one day while he supposedly knew teaOS already and had nothing after 2 weeks.

            Reply
        2. SusanIvanova

          Eventually. Not for that, but the day he was fired was a day I will cherish forever: it was a school holiday so a lot of people had taken the day off. The manager who got stuck with the task stopped by my office and asked if I “knew if Coffeecup was working that day.” Oh, the beauty of the straight line, I just could not resist: “I never know if Coffeecup is working *any* day.”

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      2. Quilter

        And I see myself in the LW’s coworker. I was new to a job and was working with someone who had been in her role for a long time and she was the default go-to person whenever anyone needed something. I’m a hard worker, reliable, and am conscientious. However, for my skills to develop, I needed to have opportunities to utilize them. My coworker loved being the default go-to person because it fed her ego and she talked about how important she was. By being the default person people used when they needed something, it fed into this notion that only my coworker could handle things. This impacted both how my coworker evaluated my work and how others in the organization perceived me. As a new person, I couldn’t tell my coworker to stop doing that. My manager had to intercede to get that to change.

        A good manager should want either of the people to be able to field requests for help so that one person isn’t being overburdened and so that from a business perspective you don’t find yourself in hot water if that person is out for an extended period or suddenly quits. Sure, it could be that the LW’s coworker is truly incompetent but that’s not the only possibility here.

        Reply
  5. Turquoise Cow

    Yeah, my thought was immediately that the boss wants the new coworker to learn from someone who is already considered something of an authority in the workplace. People are asking OP for assistance, so clearly respect and see OP as something of an authority. A good manager would want to a) work to an employee’s strengths and b) help underperforming employees to improve.

    If the boss is indeed considering OP for a leadership position of some source, how she deals with Coworker will be an excellent indication of what kind of leader she’ll be. A manager can’t (shouldn’t, anyway) just dismiss an underperforming employee as useless; they should try to do things, within reason, to help that employee improve.

    Reply
    1. Someone else

      That’s also where my mind immediately went, but at the same time, it would’ve been more helpful (or at least more clear) if the boss had made any kind of indication for the reason for the pairing. “I want you to start working with Bob more” without setting any kind of expectation for the outcome could be frustratingly ambiguous even if OP didn’t find Bob awful. So I think asking here is definitely called for. Knowing the collaboration is for mentoring purposes, which could be communicated with the boss explicitly indicating she also thinks Bob is awful, is important to know. Or if it’s one of the other possible reasons, OP needs to know that too in order to collaborate in a way that will have any chance to yield the outcome Boss is hoping for. Basically, if the request from Boss were as vague as what we know from the letter, it’s too vague to know what to do next, even if OP were not inclined to get out of it.

      Reply
      1. Turquoise Cow

        It would have been helpful, but maybe the boss is looking for more “genuine” character attributes, rather than how OP behaves when she knows she’s being evaluated.

        I mean, is certainly deal with an underperforming colleague differently if I knew it was an unspoken test for management ability, but maybe Boss wants to know if this OP is naturally understanding of others, or only when ordered to because it makes her look good.

        Reply
        1. Lynca

          In my Office success at collaboration is one of the unspoken tests for management but it’s also really just how we deal with new employees. We often have 3-4 hires at once. We have a steep learning curve for what is/isn’t expected that senior employees are asked to step in to either mentor or work projects with designated employees until they learn the ropes.

          But my managers are never this vague when setting up us with the new employees. Step 1 here really is to clarify what is expected so the OP doesn’t fail at what they’re being asked to do. It would have been helpful to know whether this is something that has occurred in the office in the past (maybe with other employees).

          Reply
        2. Someone else

          I didn’t mean it as some sort of evaluation. If boss says to me “work with Jane on this” and I have no idea why, I’m going to behave differently, not because I know/don’t know I’m being evaluated but because I don’t know what boss wants. Unless what boss wants is me to be a mind reader. Work together to spread the work around or work together to help colleague get up to speed or work together because two brains are better than one are totally different endeavors. One might call for divide and conquer, another for shadowing or active collaboration. Frankly, I assume any time I’m doing anything I’m essentially being evaluated so there’s no need to make it some kind of secret test of how to react to a vague request.

          Reply
  6. Grendel

    Unfortunately I think another likely option is that the boss knows the coworker needs some active performance management but is conflict averse and therefore wants OP to do it.

    Reply
  7. designbot

    My read on this based on my past experiences is that the boss may not know about the difference in quality standards and just sees that you are overwhelmed and he is not, so instinctually says, get Bob to help you more, with the goal of rebalancing your workload in mind. If this is the case I would talk to the boss and see if they understand how many people specifically seek you out to work on their projects and if necessary explain why that is. Ask for your boss’s advice in how to best make use of what skills Bob does have so that he’s truly a help and not creating more work for you.

    Reply
  8. Dana

    I so so empathize with the people who hated teaching their peers, were forced to teach higher status peers, etc. It’s a tough one.

    I guess it doesn’t help to note that research shows that teaching something to someone else forces you to figure out how and why you know it….and solidifies your knowledge of it. Which is why coaches and some teachers use this tactic with teenagers in school.

    But it’s true that some purely intuitive learners, especially at young ages, have no idea how to convey to someone else what they simply “get”.

    I’m struggling to convey to my son why he has to show his work in algebra, because all the steps are so obviously self evident to him. He has no idea how or why to try to break it down. He’s clearly a natural at math and a big picture thinker. This shows the limitations of the “teach to learn” model.

    A fascinating thread; I am learning a lot here.

    Reply
    1. Kyrielle

      Also, teachers don’t generally tell one kid to teach another. They tend to – in my experience – just dump the high- and low-performers in a group together and if the high-performer objects just say they know the group will manage. And the low performer often isn’t interested in working any harder, even if the high performer *does* understand and want to teach them, and even if they *can* break the details down. If the group is graded solely as a group, the high performer has to do the low performer’s work to get the grade.

      Reply
      1. Optimistic Prime

        I’m not denying anybody’s individual experiences on here, but I really want to know what kind of schools y’all went to with all of these low performers who simply didn’t want to learn. I was a high-performing kid who often got assigned to tutor or help out lower-performing students in my classes. At worst, these kids weren’t super interested in learning new math or whatever but were at least interested in how we could work together to get an A; at best, they realized their shortcomings, were often super stressed out about the fact that they weren’t getting it, and were grateful for any help they could get.

        I’ve only had a few truly lazy group members in the past and they usually weren’t the struggling kids – they were typically the B kids.

        Reply
        1. Temperance

          I went to public school in a low-income area. I was a total freak for being smarter than my peers, and for wanting to be smarter than my peers. Most of our parents were low achievers who either didn’t finish high school or who had no education beyond high school.

          Looking back on it, many of the lazy kids were raised by the sorts of people who taught their kids that school didn’t matter. These kids were NEVER interested in “working together to get an A”. They just wanted their diploma.

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          1. smokey

            Or at my little poor rural school, didn’t even care about the diploma; they just kept going until they turned 18. The number of seniors who dropped out on their 18th birthday, less than 8 months and sometimes just weeks before graduation, was astounding.

            Reply
      2. INSEAD alum

        I had a teacher in high school who gave me low-performing students to tutor, for pay. That worked out well, because if they had to fork out money, they were usually doing so voluntarily, not because the teacher forced them to.

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    2. Optimistic Prime

      I wouldn’t say it shows the limitations of a teach to learn model. At some point, people are going to have to break down things that come more naturally to them. I’m a researcher, and there are many things that simply Make Sense to me as a researcher. But part of my job is having to explain them to people who are not researchers so that they can understand what I’m doing, why, and how it impacts the business and THEIR jobs. Part of the reason I’m good at that is because I’ve taught before. Everybody learns things in steps – some people just learn more steps at a time than others. Being able to break things down and think about WHY they work the way they do makes it easier for you to learn the next thing – knowing the fundamentals of why algebra works (rather than that it just does) helps you learn calculus and trigonometry.

      Reply
    3. Falling Diphthong

      It’s a balancing act. On the one hand, he will eventually hit a form of math that isn’t intuitively obvious to him, and when that happens it will really help if he has more ways to tackle it than intuition. On the other hand, I have a white hot loathing for slapping “write a paragraph explaining all the many steps of your reasoning” on 2 + 3 = ? because “it’s good to explain your reasoning. (And I chose that both as a one-step problem AND one where writing an interesting paragraph would involve a deep dive into the nature of abstract numbers, which neither comes into most children’s understanding of basic addition nor needs to.)

      Reply
  9. James

    I don’t think your boss asking you to collaborate with your awful co-worker is a bad thing. Your boss must have seen a lot of promising traits in you that he wants your colleague to learn. i think you should even help the colleague to improve as he might risk been sacked.

    Reply
  10. Willow

    Good luck with the pushing back. That was actually one of the reasons why I left my last job. Co-worker with mental issues made a ton of mistakes that I was always fixing, and acted as if he didn’t understand basic training things even after having been there for 3 years. He also had behaved in inappropriate ways towards me a few times, so I was never comfortable working with him.

    Reply
  11. Jeanne

    If disrespecting your coworker means being honest about your concerns over the sub-par work, then go ahead and disrespect your coworker. Respect means not calling him names. It does not mean hiding that he is bad at his job.

    Reply
  12. Jon Muller

    It’s possible your boss actually recognizes your strengths, and paired the two of you deliberately to try and help elevate him. I say this because it happened to me in my previous job, with me being the benefactor.

    Reply

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