We split up 20 years ago, can we do it again?
January 5, 2011 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Work help: how to break this impasse?

We met at work and dated briefly 20 years ago. We were not compatible, broke up and have both long since moved on. We did not speak or acknowledge the other's presence until we were forced to work together a few moths ago. Ideally we would not have to work together, but circumstances beyond our control have forced us together.

We mostly communicate by email though we sit ten cubes apart. Now we are tasked with writing a procedures manual for a new project, which will involve us sitting in a conference room for hours, days, weeks at a time and wordsmithing a giant document. She's not super smart, part of the reason it didn't work out too well.

Neither of us wants to be the one to go to our boss and say 'hey, I don't really want to work with this person.' We're supposed to keep up this fiction that we're all grown up and team players. It's a new year, life is short, and I don't want to be miserable. I need the job, I have too much time invested to leave. I have many feelers out, and I'm trying to get moved, but things are tough and nothing is really happening.

She's not really my boss, but is now my 'team leader.' We are exactly the same in terms of seniority, job title, etc.

How can I/we break this impasse without looking like I'm a bad guy or refusing an assignment? Not working together would benefit both of us, but I don't know how to bring up the subject with her or my boss without losing face.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You dated briefly 20 years ago? And you can't work together now?

I don't have a super-concrete suggestion, but I can tell you with certainty that it would be comically unprofessional for either of you to complain to your boss or anyone else about this. Be grown-up professionals and work through it.
posted by Perplexity at 11:30 AM on January 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

This is going to be tough love, but you are going to have to grow up and deal with this. In the course of our lives and jobs, we are often forced to deal with people we just don't get along with (past romantic entanglements or not). You need to just buck up and get this document written. There's nothing saying that you have to be friends with her!

I don't see a way that you can get around this. You're old enough (guessing 40+) that you can't go to the boss and complain.

Maybe the two of you can have a brief meeting in which you decide that even though you don't get along, you will buck up and get this document done (agree to disagree, in other words) for the sake of both your careers and the corporation at which you work.
posted by some chick at 11:33 AM on January 5, 2011

There's no way to say, "I don't want to work with him/her" without coming across as unprofessional at best, childish and overdramatic at worst.

Is there any possibility of one of you saying, "I am so busy with XYZ project right now, I don't think I can give the proper attention to the procedure manual project. Can I deligate the procedure manual project to Joe and work on ABC smaller project instead?"

Otherwise, I'd recommend that the thing to do is for one of you to extend an olive branch--not even an olive branch, a Post-It note. "I know we're not friends and things are a little awkward between us, but we've both moved on from 20 years ago. Since we're stuck working together on this project, can we sort of start over and just be coworkers?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:35 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're supposed to keep up this fiction that we're all grown up and team players.

That should be in the non-fiction section by this point. If 20 years down the road you still can't get past this, you'd be doing yourself a favor by taking advantage of your workplace's EAP plan.
posted by sageleaf at 11:36 AM on January 5, 2011 [8 favorites]

I'd look at it this way: She's your (somewhat annoying) coworker. Not someone you briefly dated 20 years ago. Convince yourself in your head that she's just a coworker at work...nothing more.

People can change A LOT in 20 years. Just because she wasn't so smart then doesn't mean she's not gained some useful knowledge in her work since then. And if she hasn't...well, we all have to deal with those kinds of coworkers. So look at it from the annoying coworker perspective. Forget what you knew about her 20 years ago. If you wind up feeling like you're doing the lion's share of the work because she can't, just remind yourself that you putting in that extra effort gets the project over with sooner (you can write without sitting next to her and give her what you've written for editing can't you? that might be a good way to take breaks...divide sections up so you can write independently then edit together).

Also, keep reminding yourself that things could be much, much worse...this is just an annoying situation, that's all. Give yourself lots of positive self talk and relax/take breaks when you can.
posted by MultiFaceted at 11:40 AM on January 5, 2011

Suck it up and do it. You are in fact an adult now and this is not the only time that work is going to require you to team up with someone who isn't your favorite person ever. As for details like how to deal with her, I'd suggest you just say at the outset that you know you can both be strictly professional with each other. Then be that way. As for her not being too bright, be helpful instead of condescending . . . as you would with anyone, whether or not you ever dated them.
posted by bearwife at 11:44 AM on January 5, 2011

"She's not super smart" is not a particularly kind or professional comment. What does it mean? That you perhaps have differences of opinion? Different communication styles?

I can tell you from experience (as a smug, snide, condescending know-it-all) that other people pick up when you think they're stupid. At the very least, your attitude does not engender trust.

The best thing to do is to focus on the work. She's the team lead, so presumably she will look bad if the project fails.

Ask her what success looks like. Work hard to build her trust, so that when you have differences of opinion (i.e., she wants to do something "stupid") she will listen to you.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:09 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can you explain WHY you can't work together? You say you "have both long since moved on." Is it because "she's not super smart"? If so, this is not an "ex-girlfriend" thing, it's a colleague thing, and you'd do best to drop your romantic past from the argument.
posted by coupdefoudre at 12:14 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

have both long since moved on.

Uh, not really if you can't work with someone you briefly dated 20 years ago. You need to address - with her or just with yourself - whatever horrible thing happened to make you break up (because, if you are still holding all this weirdness and resentment so many years later, something obviously went down).

Get it out in the open to yourself, realize it was an entire lifetime ago, and let GO.
posted by tristeza at 12:29 PM on January 5, 2011

We met at work and dated briefly 20 years ago. We were not compatible, broke up and have both long since moved on.

At least one of you has not. Unless the brief dating and subsequent breakup resulted in the death of a favorite pet/living space burning down/jail time for one or both of you, then I really don't understand how you cannot see the incompatibility of "We've both moved on" and "How do I never work with her?"

If you have specific, honest criticism about her work ("she's not very smart" doesn't count here and it's not going to count with your boss(es), who presumably made the decision to make her the lead), then document your concerns.

But it doesn't sound like you do, with the information you've given us, in which case your best course of action is to be supremely professional and give the project the same attention you'd give it if the lead were someone you genuinely liked and respected. Fake it till you make it.
posted by rtha at 12:32 PM on January 5, 2011

This sounds a lot like you haven't moved on. If this work project is not going to affect your personal life and is not a serious imposition on your work schedule, you are giving it an undue amount of priority in your thinking. It's just another assignment.

I'd schedule, via email, a brief face to face chat with the co-worker for planning purposes. Perhaps you may want to gently inquire as to scheduling issues. Do her the professional courtesy of not disrespecting her, and since she's the team lead, inquire as to how you can most efficiently work together. Since you already communicate by email, ask if she still thinks email and network collaborative tools are the most efficient way for you to work on this project together, or if it would be better to work side by side.

You should also consider expressing enthusiasm for the assignment and express how quickly you'd like to begin and how best to arrange to get started. You can leave unsaid that the sooner you start, the sooner you'll be through.

If you go to your superiors with your discomfort, they'll probably lose some respect for you unless she does something stupid, like harass you. Otherwise, you have no choice but to get it done.
posted by Hylas at 12:34 PM on January 5, 2011

Like everyone else has said, if you just dated briefly 20 years ago, I really can't see what the problem is.

It sounds like you've not really had much contact with her in 20 years, so she may well have changed. And if she's the same level of seniority as you, then she must be as good at her job as you are, even if she's not "super smart". Give her a chance!

I'd recommend acknowledging the elephant in the room briefly in your start up meeting with her - "I know we've not really talked since we dated, but I'd like to believe we can start over, work together productively and make this project a success" - and then never mention it again.

If this is really problematic for you, maybe look at ways of working on the project that don't involve the two of you stuck in a conference room together all day every day for weeks. Can you not agree the framework for various sections and then allocate sections to each other to write, then review together? Or something along those lines that means that you're not literally writing the entire thing together?

Good luck.
posted by finding.perdita at 12:36 PM on January 5, 2011

Neither of us wants to be the one to go to our boss
I don't know how to bring up the subject with her

These can't both be true. Are you sure she has as much of a problem with this as you do?
posted by ook at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a new year, life is short, and I don't want to be miserable.

In contrast to everyone else, I hear you. It's amazing to get to work with great people. Every opportunity is a chance to get to know someone (sometimes someone new) well, and what a waste if it's someone you don't like and whose professional abilities you don't really respect.

That said, I'd try to shift your head into that perspective: it's a project you don't want with a person you don't like working with. Breakups often come with hurt feelings, a sense of being unfairly judged or misunderstood, a sense of failure or a missed future, and a bunch of other feelings that induce vulnerability and then reactions like bitterness, anger, self-blame, or whatever. The more you can (internally) confront and defuse that and then neutralize your feelings from "oh no my ex!" to "oh, that person, yeah, working with them means you have to carry the effort on your own," the easier this'll be.

Okay, so you have a sucky project with a sucky coworker. What can you do? Would Bob be a better person for this role? Is there another project that your time would be better spent on? Does the project need to happen now? Is the funding and institutional support for it secure? Can you delegate 60 percent of your involvement to someone more junior that you'd supervise as part of helping them develop leadership?

I think once you drain the charged energy from your emotions here, you'll either find a way to deal with doing this, or you'll find a way to get out of it the same way you'd get out of some other unpleasant work task.
posted by salvia at 1:05 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try being nice to her. Why make the situation more awkward than it is? Even if the cause of your incompatibility in the past was something really awful and embarrassing, it was so long ago. Make a gesture -- instead of emailing, walk over to her cube, smile, act friendly, and cooperate with her. At least outwardly, pretend as hard as you can that you barely remember your past relationship, that you respect her as a colleague, and that her being the "team leader" does not bother you at all. And if you have these nagging feelings of resentment saying, "but she's dumb, and why is she the team leader, and I wish she hadn't seen me naked" just try to push them out of your head and see her purely as a colleague.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:02 PM on January 5, 2011

I can tell you from experience (as a smug, snide, condescending know-it-all) that other people pick up when you think they're stupid. At the very least, your attitude does not engender trust.

Agreed and seconded. It is best to erase all hostility and contempt from your thoughts, and it will go a lot better.

And if she really is legitimately not that bright, make sure to figure out a way to either make her look better, or get credit for your portion of the work and not get the blame for hers.
posted by gjc at 4:31 PM on January 5, 2011

Twenty years is a long time, you haven't spoken at all until a few months ago, and you communicate almost exclusively by e-mail. It seems within reason, to me, that one or both of you may have changed quite a bit in that timeframe. I wonder whether you have recent evidence that you can't work together, or whether you are just assuming, based on your (long-ago) history and your shared reluctance to do so, that you can't.

I'm a big fan of the "pretend to be what you want to be until you are it" approach. In this case, that would mean deliberately cloaking yourself in professionalism and objectivity in your interactions with your team leader, totally ignoring your shared history, until it becomes second nature. (Which is essentially a restatement of chickenmagazine's suggestion.)
posted by gingerest at 5:17 PM on January 5, 2011

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