my boss wants me to collaborate with my coworker more — but his work is bad

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. I’m not sure if she’s pushing him in the same way. 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?

There are all kinds of reasons a manager might start pushing you to collaborate more with your coworker:

1. She thinks you have strengths that your coworker lacks and thinks that he would benefit from your involvement.
2. She thinks your coworker has strengths that you lack and thinks that you would benefit from his involvement.
3. Since your coworker is new, she wants him to get more exposure to how your team operates and considers you a good mentor for that.
4. Without collaboration, either or both of you are missing the perspective that the other person can add, and this will avoid problems and make the work stronger.
5. She’s grooming you (or him!) for a mentoring or management role.
6. She believes in collaboration for collaboration’s sake.
7. Something else that I haven’t thought of.

My money is #1 or #3. But the only way to find out for sure is to ask your manager. And once you know that, you’ll be better able to figure out how to respond.

So talk to your manager. Say something like this: “I know you’ve been asking for me to work more closely with Bob. Without that push, I normally wouldn’t, because our projects don’t have much overlap. Is there something that hasn’t been working as smoothly as it could? If you can help me understand more about the outcome you’re looking for, it will help me do this better.”

You might hear that she knows his work isn’t great and that that’s why she wants to pair him with you more. In that case, you can certainly express your concerns about the impact that his involvement might have on your own projects (and reputation), and talk about how to manage that.

Or, if you hear that in the past there were problems caused by your projects lacked a crucial perspective that Bob can provide because of his work on XYZ, you can figure out how to handle that. The solution might be, for instance, that you don’t need to do the work with Bob, but can simply talk with him to make sure that whatever useful input he has is reflected in the work you’re doing yourself.

But if it’s a more vague “collaboration is good” response, then all you can really do is explain your concerns and see if there’s some other way to achieve whatever it is that she’s looking for. Maybe, as above, you can “collaborate” without actually doing the work jointly (by keeping each other in the loop about your projects, for instance, or by lending him guidance about his). Or maybe she’ll back off on the whole idea once she hears your concerns. Or maybe not — but at least at that point you’ll have more insight into what this directive is all about.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Mystic*

    Oh man, I can think of a million reasons for this… Just to start adding onto Alison’s list:

    8. Bob is going to be taking over some/all of your projects.
    9. You and/or Bob need a backup who knows your projects in case one of you is hit by a bus.
    10. Increasing efficiency by making sure you two aren’t doing duplicate work (this is an issue in my area with software development… two people will write code that does the exact same thing… very common in silo work environments)

  2. John*

    I think the OP should consider that actively mentoring the co-worker may help reduce his own workload over the long term, as he can help shape someone equipped to be a go-to person on future projects.

  3. Anonymous*

    I’d lay my pennies on 1-2-3.
    Lets assume your work is perfect and your coworkers is horrid:

    It is worth stepping back and remembering that to your boss it doesn’t matter if half the work is perfect and beautiful and lovely if half the work is shoddy and not good. So your boss wants to improve the quality of all the work and saying, hey work together could be aimed to have the two of you figure out consistent best practices etc so that all the work is great.

    It could also be that your boss would rather have 90% of the work done up to 80% standard than 50% of the work at 100% standard.

    1. AB*

      My money is also in #2 and not 1 because of this phrase:

      “For some reason, my boss has started pushing me to work more closely with him on my projects. ”

      (OP said “my” projects, not the coworkers’ projects, which tells me that 2 seems more likely — in other words, the manager thinks the coworker has strengths that OP lacks and thinks that OP would benefit from his involvement in OP’s projects.)

  4. Meg*

    Also, it’s not uncommon in a software/web development environment to encourage pair programming. You may think you can’t really program with your work in a “team” or a “partner,” and I was really resistant to it also, but it’s very common in this industry – especially with “subpar” programmers. It’s a nice way for them to learn best practices, a coding style (My personal style is proper indenting to show parent/child relationships, and lots of commenting, especially if other people are going to be working within the same file, or if there’s some logic that isn’t easily readible [the comments explain how it works]), and how to write clean code.

    Try not to push back too much on the pair programming. It definitely helps YOU to have a second set of eyes, and a different perspective of the code base.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      I’m going to disagree. Two good people can create an awesome product. But a bad person can become a time-suck on a good person, creating two bad projects.

      I wouldn’t want someone working on “my” project either – because it has my name on it. If it was an “our” project, I still wouldn’t be happy, but it would affect my reputation less.

      So how’s this for a solution: OP, go talk to your boss and find out why he wants this. If boss wants the other guy to get better, offer an alternate solution of teaching him best practices. Create a process on how you approach your project. Make it very detailed. Also create checklists for the final product to ensure quality. The other guy can “test” your process and find out where wording is weak, ambiguous, etc. Hone your process.

      This creates a win-win solution. You’ve created processes for the team that you will get credit for, and can be used in the future. You get the other guy to “test” it for you. He gets to learn from the processes and starts to understand best practices. His work improves because of your help. Future work improves because the group now has best practices.

  5. JerseyVol*

    I would say that her last paragraph (where she asks your advice) is very telling. Her whole post smacks of an inability to accept criticism, and she already thinks she’s right. Recommend she take an OCEAN test so she can acknowledge her weaknesses and leverage her strengths. Here’s a short one from Dr. Phil, LOL:

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Huh. I didn’t get that sense. It’s possible, of course, but I’d say it’s just as possible that this new coworker really is a pain to collaborate with.

    2. EngineerGirl*

      WHAT? I see no weaknesses here. It is entirely reasonable to not have your own work pulled down by someone who isn’t performing. And that OCEAN testis a bunch of useless psychobabble. It is so simplistic that it is meaningless.

      This is the second bizarre Dr Phil reference I’ve see in the last few days. Are you posting to drive traffic. To that site?

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