my staff collaborates so much that I can’t evaluate their work individually

A reader writes:

I have a team of two, each with distinct roles, but they run our social media effort together. I’m all for collaboration, and the output is very good, but my issue is that I have no idea who is doing what. I just gave an important social project to one (“Fergus”) and asked him to own it, as the other (“Jane”) is swamped with other tasks, yet the deliverable always comes from both. Any advice?

Again, I wouldn’t be so focused on who is doing what, but I am having issues with Fergus in a number of areas, and I cannot discern if social is a bright spot in his performance, or if he’s being carried by Jane. I don’t want to assume, especially if he’s performing strongly in this area.

Yeah, it’s weird that you’re assigning work to Fergus and then getting the work back from both of them. It could be that Jane is carrying Fergus more than she should be, or it could just be that they’re not clear that you don’t want them to do that.

So first, ask about it! As in, “Hey, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I assign a project to one of you, it comes back from both of you. How does that end up happening?” You might hear that they’ve found it’s more efficient that way; maybe one of them is great at element X and one is great at element Y and they work well together, or maybe they’re both people who thrive by having a collaborator, or who knows. Or they might just enjoy their work more when they do it jointly and didn’t think you’d care.

An important note here: Ask them about this separately, not together. You might get different answers. (And if you ask them together, you might get Fergus saying it makes the work better, while Jane is silently thinking “that’s because it sucks when you do it on your own” but isn’t inclined to speak up and say that in front of him.)

After you’ve asked about it and have a better understanding of what’s going on, be clear about your expectations going forward. If you don’t want them collaborating to this degree or on everything, say so. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that you want them deployed on separate projects, and that you don’t want them getting pulled away from those projects to work on the other person’s stuff. (Obviously, casually bouncing around ideas is fine; you just want to make it clear that you don’t want joint work happening when you’ve assigned one person to it … and that if they think a project could be strengthened by having the other person take on a significant role in it, they should talk to you about it.)

And if you get the sense that they both derive a lot of fulfillment by working together, it’s worth trying to find a few ways they can continue to do that so that you’re not entirely removing something that brings them joy and possibly sparks creativity. But make sure they both genuinely want that; it’s no good if one does while the other dislikes it and wants to be left alone.

Really, though, just talk to them — both to find out what’s going on and to more clearly lay out how you want this to work.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Bookworm*

    I want to commend you for looking in to this more closely. I don’t think it’s uncommon in collaborative environments for someone to be “carried” by their coworkers.

    This makes it hard for the manager to see the problems and exhausts the coworkers – who usually assume management has a good idea of what’s going on.

    1. Katie F*

      Oh yeah. Collaboration by way of “I do my work and I do half of your work and you call it ‘our work'” is shockingly common in heavy-collaboration environments, especially creative ones. Definitely good that you’re looking into this.

      Although, really, it may just come out that they’re exceptional as a team and prefer things that way. I suspect, however, that Allison is right about meeting with them separately = two different answers to your questions.

      1. Patrick*

        On the other side, I’ve worked on collaborative environments where control freaks quietly ran amok because they had the standing to insert themselves into everything. It could be Jane involving herself without being asked. Not saying that’s the story here but it’s not uncommon.

  2. Jaguar*

    Is this a problem that needs to be stopped? Assuming the work is getting done right and neither one of them is feeling burdened by the other, demanding they keep to their own work seems like micromanaging and meddling.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think yes, it is, because of this: “Again, I wouldn’t be so focused on who is doing what, but I am having issues with Fergus in a number of areas, and I cannot discern if social is a bright spot in his performance, or if he’s being carried by Jane. I don’t want to assume, especially if he’s performing strongly in this area.”

    2. Temperance*

      Yes – it’s preventing the higher performer from getting appropriate credit for her work, and it’s stopping the less-skilled person from improving.

    3. Leatherwings*

      What AAM and Temperance said above but also: there’s really no way to know that neither one of them is feeling burdened by the other until OP asks and maybe redistributes work a bit (which isn’t necessarily micromanaging either). There’s a decent chance one person is covering for the other and DOES feel burdened by the work.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One other thing to add — A manager’s job isn’t just to ensure work is getting done today. It’s to ensure you’re going to get good results from your team in the long-term too. That means that you really do need to have a sense of who’s doing what and how they’re each doing. Otherwise you could be totally blindsided when Jane leaves and you discover Fergus doesn’t have the skills to do the job on his own, or when you don’t retain Jane because she’s annoyed at not getting credit for her work, or you might just miss opportunities to help Fergus develop, and on and on…

      1. Kyrielle*

        Yes. Also, if they are both perfectly happy with the arrangement but Jane is a superstar and doing 75% of the work, only think what your results could be if you replaced Fergus with someone who can do what you expected (50% of the work)…maybe you don’t need to be at 125%, but maybe it would free up Jane to grow in ways you (and she) didn’t even realize. There are costs and dividends to this sort of thing that may not be obvious until it’s over.

        Or maybe Jane is carrying more and tells you that really, it’s a pity there’s not more X because Fergus is *amazing* at X, but man is she tired of carrying his weight on Y and Z. Hey, you’ve just learned how Fergus can thrive. Maybe there’s a group in the company that needs someone more skilled in X – and Fergus can, if he chooses to accept that step, grow one of his key skills *and* probably feel more secure in his job.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Not to mention performance reviews, raises and bonuses will be fairer if you know who’s doing what and to what level.

      3. Jaguar*

        I guess I’ve always earned my management’s trust early to the point that I’m quite sure they don’t really have a detailed idea of what I do since they trust me to get my work done and can focus on other things. So, if they suddenly told me to stop collaborating with coworkers and were asking for more reporting on what I was doing all of a sudden, I’d feel like the winds had changed to serious micromanagement and I’d be looking for the first flight out of there.

    1. OhNo*

      This is just me, but I think I’d actually talk to Fergus first. If the OP is in a small office/department, and it would be pretty apparent that they are talking to Jane about something, that might clue Fergus in that he needs to hedge his comments about their collaboration. I’d rather give him the chance to commit (“We work perfectly together! Jane loves collaborating with me! I actually do most of the work!”) before getting the other side.

      But then I’ve been on Jane’s end of this situation before, so I might be projecting my experiences from that onto this situation.

      1. designbot*

        I think that’s a really good point–if one of them heard through the grapevine or was given a heads up by the other, which way would you want it to go? If Jane goes first and Fergus hears that something’s up, he’s got time to concoct a story. But if Fergus goes first and Jane hears, she’s got time to decide how much she does or doesn’t want to cover for someone who she might have defended if put on the spot.
        Of course, this assumes that OP has the right read in the first place that Fergus is weak and Jane is strong.

    2. nofelix*

      I’d agree, Jane first. Her story will reveal if what Fergus says is fabrication. Also if she twigs she’s being talked to first this will make her feel her opinion is valued, which helps retain her if she’s sick of propping up Fergus.

      It’s too messy to first get a story from Fergus, find out from Jane if it sounds true, then go back to Fergus and further investigate. It makes the OP look weak and Jane look like a snitch.

  3. Temperance*

    I had this problem with my summer interns, right down to the lower-performer passing work on to the higher performer or taking credit for his work.

    I nipped it in the bud by giving them different assignments, and making clear that any issues with their workload, assignments, etc. needed to come directly *to me*, and they were not to give each other work.

    If the situation isn’t that dire, you should have a meeting with Jane and let her know that you need her to concentrate on her assignments, and do the same with Fergus.

  4. Sketchee*

    This situation reminds me of a coworker who would work long nights and weekends. Managers and even the C-level employees would direct her to hand over work to others in our department. Several times on projects, we’d ask her questions or she’d overhear. Then rather than explain, she’d say “I’ll do that.” There was no stopping her (as a coworker) as she’d broken record.

    After a while, she’d have less and less help while becoming more and more upset about her workload. Finally she left the company. Our manager tended not to be direct and intervene and tended to be hands off.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Oooh I think this brings up an important point that the problem might not be Fergus – it might be Jane. It’s possible Jane is taking over and not allowing Fergus to contribute. That kind of behavior could leave him floundering in other areas which might change your approach to dealing with him.

      Definitely a good reason to listen hard to both parties when OP speaks to them.

      1. anon today*

        Oh I missed this comment thread before I added my comment below. Yes I agree, take a hard look at Jane too.

      2. Artemesia*

        I have had both types of collaborators. I wrote a book with what I refer to in family as ‘my non-writing co-author’; the second book never came out because I just didn’t lift a finger on my part till I saw copy for his part as I literally did 95% of the first c0-authored book. He has been the co-author of several other books the same way. He does make a contribution; he is a competent person; he, however, doesn’t write much and has been carried to his fabulous authorial vita by wise collaboration choices.

        I co-edited a book with someone who simply could not let anyone else have authority or credit — she had to grab my chapters to edit and do them herself and then insisted she get first authorship. I was the designated lead author but giving her precedence didn’t bother me because is washed my hands of it when she kept grabbing. Life is too short to fight with someone to do your share of the work when they cannot let go. I have watched her do the same thing in professional associations and other collaborations such that few people want to work with her.

        So you may have a free rider in Fergus or a control freak in Jane. Time to find out.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I had a partner in school who was like this. We had to do a ten page summary, it had to include A, B, C and D. We agreed to write five pages each. Good thing I wrote nine pages because he showed up with NONE. It took us hours to get the words to spill over on to a tenth page so that we met the ten page requirement. It only took me two hours to do the nine pages. Some people are more work than the project itself.

            1. Kathlynn*

              Assignment, where we need to make a PowerPoint summarizing a chapter of our textbook. I took my half, and wrote the notes out for my partner to add. She copied the text for her half word for word. (also, wrote this on my cell. Had a button oops)

          1. Overeducated*

            Oh man this reminds me of the time me and another grad student had to work on a project with undergrads. They all wanted to spend our first meeting hashing out whether our next meetings should be Sunday at 7 pm or a weekday at 7 am or 11 pm because they all were too busy to stay or meet at reasonable hours. The other grad student and i were like “nope, not acceptable, nobody is leaving until we sit here together and nail down our content, and then we will handle drafts via Google docs.” We did essentially all the editing to fit the pieces together, but not living in dorms on campus and having work obligations, we just weren’t willing to meet at bizarre hours.

            Fortunately I have been lucky enough to never suffer slackers or control freaks in my work life so far.

      3. Analyze All The Data*

        Yep, I’ve definitely been guilty of being a control-freak on group projects before. But that was mostly in situations where I wasn’t sure if my group-mates had the skills/ambition to deliver quality work. That might be the situation here–Jane doesn’t have confidence in Fergus’s skills and takes over the project, even though Fergus is actually capable, just unambitious/lazy.

        1. Clisby Williams*

          I’ve seen that too. A control-freak type person gets paired with someone who’s perfectly happy with slacking off, and a not-so-useful dynamic emerges. The work gets done, the work is good, the 2 people are happy with their roles, but is that really what a manager wants from them?

  5. James*

    It seems there are a number of issues here, some of which are known, some potential….

    1) You don’t know what’s going on with your team. This one you know–you’ve identified specific data gaps and are requesting help fixing them. I don’t mean to blame you here; it’s actually to your credit that you saw this as an issue.

    2) Fergus is under-performing. This is a known, but the extent s an unknown. A solution (perhaps not the best solution, but one I’ve had work for me in the past) is to ask Jane her opinion of his work sometime when the two of you are alone. Chance meetings in the breakroom or an elevator work for this (on business trips I’ve done this at bars as well, but it depends on the company and team culture).

    3) Jane is not setting appropriate boundaries. This is an unknown, but it seems like she’s having trouble saying “No”. If that’s the case, a solution could be to tell her you’ll back her up of she says no to Fergus and he pushes back.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Well that needs to happen too, but it’ll be most effective if OP gets a firm grasp on what he can and can’t do – for example if he is actually doing well with social stuff and really is collaborating with Jane, the action plan for how to address other issues might change to focus more on that work. If he’s hiding behind her, it might be time to consider a PIP or letting him go.

      I think that this is critical information in that conversation.

  6. Mel*

    I’d talk to Jane first to ensure Fergus isn’t taking her away from her priorities and to ask what role she had in helping. She’s much more likely to give you an accurate picture. He’s much more likely to try and paint himself in a better light given his other issues

    If she gave any indication he wasn’t doing the bulk of the work Id clarify to Fergus what role if any she should have.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I tend to agree. If OP believes it’s likely that Jane is doing the best work, her version of events will give you something to push back on in your conversation with Fergus. I don’t know if the order in which OP speaks to them is THAT big of a deal, but I do think getting what you think will be the most accurate picture first will be most beneficial.
      Then when Fergus says “We split it 50/50” you can follow up with specifics based on your conversation with Jane.

  7. AnonAcademic*

    I am the Jane to a Fergus right now, and I had to bring my concerns about their performance to management as well as tell my Fergus I could no longer be responsible for aspects of the joint project that need to be completed by them. However I only did so after weeks/months of frustration, trying to find a way to communicate expectations clearly to Fergus to ensure things were done. If someone, ANYONE had asked me “so what is Fergus contributing to the XYZ project” several months ago, I would have been relieved for the opportunity to (tactfully) explain I was doing 80-90% of the work.

  8. Sunny Days*

    Yeah, talk to Jane first. There are a lot of reasons one co-worker could be carrying another, but in some cases, the carried one is an abusive manipulator type. If Fergus is that kind of person and he sees this coming, he’ll try to talk Jane into saying what he wants her to say. On the same note, I’d be especially patient and gentle in your conversation with Jane. If it’s an unhealthy type of dynamic, she might be under pressure not to reveal what’s going on. Or if it’s a healthy one but they’re good enough friends that she doesn’t want to betray him.

  9. Brett*

    I’m somewhat curious about the initial problem too, being unable to separate their work on deliverables.

    I used to do some complicated social media team projects (3-4 person collaborative teams for multi-account campaigns), and it is possible to track component metrics on deliverables. It could be a matter of tooling (hootsuite is helpful) or a matter of just defining metrics to track. (e.g. who is drafting language, who is creating images, who is scheduling messages or creating engagements)

    1. Leatherwings*

      It’s possible that some of the social stuff is smaller in scale, which could make it harder. If it’s something like “come up with a FB/Twitter plan for the week and submit it to me” I can see it being tough to figure out who actually planned which tweets are coming out when.

      But yeah, if it’s something like a campaign or series then there are tools that can help you track this stuff a little easier.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      That’s what I was going to suggest too. Some sort of project software where both Jane and Fergus can check off who’s finished what and who’s planning to do what and when etc. But the talks still need to happen first.

  10. anon today*

    Keep in mind that Jane may be the problem here – if Jane is the type of person who has control issues, she may be stepping in on Fergus’ projects regardless of if he wants her to or not, especially if she is senior to him in any way and he doesn’t feel within his boundaries to say no to her. I’ve had coworkers who I’d have to intentionally hide projects from to keep them from commandeering everything, and I’ve never been a poor performer or turned in poor quality work. Some people will always feel that their work is better than everyone’s, their opinions matter more, and they feel responsible for taking everything over. Even if Fergus isn’t up to Jane’s standards, he may never get the opportunity to develop if Jane is always bulldozing him. Fergus may be feeling disgruntled about that situation which may impact other areas of his performance.

    Obvs, this may not be the case here, but nobody has really mentioned this as a possibility, and as I’ve been in that kind of position before, I feel sympathetic to him if OP is going into this issue with a preconceived bias against Fergus when the issue may actually be with Jane.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Oooh, and a bulldozing Jane, if Fergus is just a bit below-par, would be even more inclined to bulldoze – but Fergus might do better if he were given a chance. And being bulldozed can be demoralizing, and being demoralized isn’t great for one’s concentration (and thus creative productivity) either.

      I suspect this is not it, but – OP, keep in mind that it may be. Keeping eyes/ears open for this sort of thing is a good idea also.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Exactly. Don’t let confirmation bias get in your way if something else is going on here (however unlikely that might be).

      1. nofelix*

        I’ve found discussing overall department workload is a good way to remind them that there’s too much for them to do alone and you’re there to help. When you receive an assignment, make clear agreements about when feedback will be requested: “Great, I’ll have a draft ready to discuss tomorrow morning”. Get things as close to finished as you can before the boss sees it. Try to structure feedback sessions to limit their commandeering habits, e.g. if they have a habit of standing over your shoulder and dictating, print off your report first and make notes. If they commonly find faults as an excuse to take control then pay particular attention to fixing things, and identify any outstanding faults and their solutions before the boss sees it.

        Some people just have unhealthy control patterns that are beyond an employee’s ability to fix though.

        1. MissDisplaced*

          I guess what I mean is perhaps a more underhanded thing. For instance, I manage the Thing A and Thing B, and these are two programs I started two years before NewBoss. But NewBoss came in and is now pretty much trying to commandeer these two programs, going to higher-ups as though HE created them and and they only started happening recently. It is really annoying.
          Moreover, NewBoss recently asked me for some statistics on Thing A, which I sent him, and then turned around and presented those findings to higher-ups as his own. (I saw the email forwarded to me from a 3rd party). No mention that MissDisplaced provided those. NewBoss also had “assigned” someone else that works for them to do something with Thing A without asking me first, which of course I had already done, as it’s part of my everyday duties. It was very deliberate I was being cut out.

  11. Tomato Frog*

    I’m put in mind of how, in some industries, employees have to take extended vacations at least once a year, because that’s one of the ways fraud is caught (at least, I think that’s the reasoning!). Maybe we should all have to take two consecutive weeks off during the year, just to see how things function without us.

    1. JessaB*

      Yep most fraud will show up over a couple of weeks, a day here and there you can cover for. It’s especially true in finance, you can’t cover things for two weeks.

  12. Is it Friday Yet?*

    I wanted to mention that they could be afraid of your your critique or assessment of their work if it is frequently coming back from “both.” You mentioned that you are having problems with Fergus. Perhaps he is aware of that, and he is collaborating with Jane to avoid receiving negative feedback. Just a thought.

    Again, this is just one possibility. I also think it’s highly likely that they just enjoy collaborating.

  13. Not So NewReader*

    Something like this happened in one of my old jobs. The boss’ solution was to assign everyone in the group their own project. And the boss CLEARLY said, “I am having trouble evaluating you guys because you overlap each other ordinarily. So I am assigning you a task that will be a part of your evaluation. You MUST complete the task on your own. If you have any questions or problems regarding your assigned task, I want you to come see me, not each other. I want to have more insight about each of you as individuals.” He went on to explain that it was a portion of our evaluation, not the sum total.

    Of course, everyone was a little nervous. But he was fair with us and answered our questions. It really impacted no one in their eval because he found that we were all doing our jobs. The overlap happened because one person was low on work and the other person had an excess. We were just trying to stay busy that was all.

    1. Sunny Days*

      Ooh, that’s a good idea! Something like a pop quiz. The ideal way to do it would be to have the whole team schedule a certain afternoon off for an “activity”, then have people complete the project independently, in a room together where you can see them. Just like a test. Then take them all out for drinks and pizza (or whatever is the norm in your office) since test-like experiences can be stressful for some people.

      Having worked in collaborative environments, I would have appreciated this. Collaboration is great. Competition between co-workers can be a good thing too. But you need a way to gauge people’s actual skills so you can see who might be carrying who and act accordingly.

  14. stevenz*

    I became very uneasy as I read through the letter and Alison’s response. There is no information in the letter to give a clue to Jane’s personality or workplace behaviour, but I’m uncomfortable with the presupposition that Fergus (male) is the problem and not Jane (female), assuming names reflect gender which I’m sure they do in this case. AAM is generally pretty careful about respecting gender equity, but this post seems not to.

    I have seen any number of very ambitious people, male and female, in an office who muscle people out of projects that they want to do or get credit for or be seen as leading. I’ve been the muscle-ee in a few of these situations and I know it’s very difficult to defend one’s role without it looking like you’re trashing the other person, especially in a situation where the other gets the benefit of the doubt by virtue of position, longevity, or effectiveness. Or the other, e.g., Fergus, is non-assertive or weak or unsure of his place, making him vulnerable to pressure. I am NOT saying this is what is happening in the writer’s situation because I don’t know, but it IS an option to consider in an objective review of it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually assigned the names for ease of understanding the question and the answer; the OP didn’t include any names originally.

      But I thought the OP did a nice job of not assuming what was going on (writing, “I don’t want to assume, especially if he’s performing strongly in this area”).

  15. E.*

    As half of a creative team in an ad agency, I feel inclined to point out that in advertising it is really abnormal for a team to be separated for an assignment. Art director/copywriter pairings are indeed distinct roles, and creative teams often are tasked with social media work – so I wonder if this team is one such. If so, I’d point out that it’s standard for the team to manage their responsibilities, divide tasks and/or collaborate however they wish in order to deliver work. Even if that means the art director is making dialogue revisions in a script and the copywriter is searching for set design reference images. And because creative teams are always assigned to multiple projects, it wouldn’t be out of line and no one would care if an AD were to help with a project their partner was asked to own. (Also – ‘own’ means take responsibility for/be the lead on in my industry, and is not a directive to work independently. Maybe that differs in OP’s.) If a creative director were managing an art director/copywriter team and couldn’t tell if one creative was consistently under-delivering, they wouldn’t be a strong CD. The best thing to do would be to meet with each creative and ask how the partnership was working out. If they didn’t see any distress from either creative, the rest is the team’s business. Sometimes in a team your partner burns out and you carry some extra weight for a while, and later they’ll do the same for you. If they’re both alright working together and the work is what it should be, it’s micromanaging to dictate how they should manage their tasks. They’re working in a team for a reason. (If OP truly, truly needs to test their theory they should assign the employee in question to work with their counterpart from another team for an assignment or two. The resulting work would probably answer the question, and, if not, the interim partner would.)

    1. Janelle*

      I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that if this were a case where it’s customary for pairs/teams to work in this fashion, then the OP wouldn’t be all that fussed to sort out Fergus’s work from Jane’s as there would be norms to determine quality of work.

  16. JanetInSC*

    It’s too bad Jane doesn’t have a vacation to take because that would be the perfect time to assign a solo project to Fergus.

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