Is there any good reason to tell someone what I really think of them?
March 10, 2008 3:38 PM   Subscribe

I dropped out of a course and extended the time my degree will take, partly in order to avoid a difficult fellow student. She wants to know if she's got anything to do with it. Should I tell her? Why?

The following all happened quite quickly. I was recently enrolled in a professional subject which caps off my degree (which I am completing by distance education). The assessment is centred on a group-work. I made the mistake of teaming up with another high-achiever. In a very short time, she took over the project, and all the tasks that I would be responsible for, and made a number of non-collaborative decisions. I sent her a pleasant email (that I agonised over), praising her contributions and asking that she reconsider her management style so that others could also contribute. She ignored the email, did not acknowledge it at all and stopped all contact. I felt really stressed because this course is year long, and I didn’t want to be both struggling with the complex requirements of this course and with a team member all year.

I had a weekend away and considered my options and decided to postpone this course until next year. This means that my degree which would have taken 3 years will now take 4. I withdrew from the course and advised the lecturer and the student. In reply, she’s asked if she had anything to do with my decision.
Should I tell her? There’s probably no lasting consequence to me if I do, but I have no doubt she will be hurt by this. The other thing is, she’s not responsible for my inability to deal with despots, is she? What’s the appropriate, adult thing to do?
posted by b33j to Human Relations (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The adult thing to do is to communicate how you feel, directly.
posted by mpls2 at 3:42 PM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

My advice is to tell her in the same careful, belabored way that you did in the first email. She does need to know that this was her fault; it's the only way that she can learn from the experience and work on her behavior. If I had such an effect on a person I would definitely want to know about it. Of course, you can fluff it up with stuff about your particular circumstances, and say that her management style was one factor of many that contributed to your decision. Good luck!
posted by farishta at 3:44 PM on March 10, 2008

Reading mpis2's comment, my answer seems too weak. Replace 'belabored' with 'but nonetheless direct.' Sorry.
posted by farishta at 3:46 PM on March 10, 2008

Best answer: I think the adult thing to do is to just be honest without placing blame.

In other words, a simple acknowledgement of the facts ("I tried to discuss this with you, and received no response. After giving it some thought I decided that it would be better for me to remove myself from the situation and take the class again later"), rather than acknowledging the facts *and* saying that she is responsible for your degree taking longer than expected (The above, plus, "Because of this, this degree will take me 4 years instead of 3. Hope you're happy.)

Sometimes people need to know they messed up. It's possible to deliver that news without being mean about it.

Or if you don't want to be an adult about it, just ignore her email the way she ignored yours.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 3:46 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I understand where you're coming from. I am someone who tends to want to run a group project, if not have a large part in it. It would be tough to let someone else try to drive me out. I'm not sure telling the girl would accomplish anything unless you think it will teach her a lesson (which I doubt). Personally I wonder how well you are going to deal with adversity IRL if you let one bossy chick make you extend your time in school by a YEAR. Surely there were other options, at least talking to the prof about it? I'm sure we don't have all the details but this made it seem like you caved pretty easily.
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

By not replying to your original communication, she's already thrown professional and common courtesy out the window.

You can be civil, but I see no reason not to be up front with her. At least let her know how inappropriate her lack of response was.
posted by Adam_S at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2008 last sentence may have come off sounding snarky. That was not intended. :)
posted by DrGirlfriend at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2008

Best answer: I have no doubt of the complexity of the course, and the controlling nature of this woman, but you sound like a very sensitive, passive sort. Controlling people will always run right over you if you never learn to stand up to them. She may honestly have no idea of the impact she has on others because no one's ever stood up to her. A diplomatic but honest e-mail may provide her with insight into herself and allow her the possibility of change. She's even opened the door to this by asking you if it was her. A hurtful response would be along the lines of "You're controlling and domineering and I can't stand to work with you." A helpful response would be "I didn't feel I had enough opportunity to contribute to the project, and I disagreed with your management style. I feared a long string of confrontations and I opted for the less stressful route of withdrawal from the course."
posted by desjardins at 3:52 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you don't tell her, she will continue doing what she's doing, and others may elect to do just what you have done to avoid her, which hardly seems beneficial to anyone in the long run. I would tell her. If you feel better doing that by email, since that's the way you communicated before, I see nothing wrong with that. There's no reason to torture yourself now that you've made your decision and moved on academically and professionally.
posted by misha at 3:54 PM on March 10, 2008

Response by poster: More info:

I'm 40, have achieved a 4.0 GPA while raising two teen kids and working two part time jobs as a research assistant, studying distantly. I knowthat I'm sensitive - which is why I came here to ask if it was reasonable to tell the student what I think.

I did contact the prof, twice, who asked me to see if I could deal with it the first time, and the second time he did not respond.

Here is the text of some of the email I sent her, for those of you who think I need to learn to stick up for myself:

X, I think you’ll make an extraordinary project leader and will lead our team to the successful completion of a brilliant project. I hope, though, that you will consider a participatory project management style for this venture. Perhaps we could hold off making any more decisions, or producing any more team documents until everyone is on board so that they feel like they have ownership. It may be a little disconcerting to someone joining us if we’re up to Week 3 tasks and they have to catch up, and basically rubber-stamp everything that you and I have already decided on.

and further on

To be totally honest, I’m a little frustrated that you’ve done task ABC. I thought we agreed that graphic design was going to be my role, but I see you are also planning on doing this. It’s going to be hard to take on the role if I know you’re going to do my tasks before me. As I said earlier, I’d like to see us agree as a team to roles and tasks first, so that we avoid second-guessing each other.

posted by b33j at 4:00 PM on March 10, 2008

I think I might ask the lecturer about what to do. Is it too late to re-enter the class? I was going to go to graduate school 2 years ago and got stuck with a teacher for the whole of the first semester that I knew was going to be awful. I did a lot of research. I talked to the dean of the school about it, who acknowledged the problem but couldn't change anything. I ended up withdrawing because of it. Considering that the class was going to cost me $20,000 I have pretty much no regrets, although I wish that the dean had done something about the teacher with the history of problems (100% negative reviews for this full time class from past students).

Anyway, she sounds like an idiot. But the school maybe would help negotiate a solution for you? Perhaps it's worth talking it over with your advisor. I hate people like this.
posted by sully75 at 4:01 PM on March 10, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, you've been really helpful.
posted by b33j at 4:06 PM on March 10, 2008

If she hadn't asked, I would say don't tell her. But she asked. So tell her.
posted by happyturtle at 4:07 PM on March 10, 2008

It's possible she missed your original email. Just throwing that out there.

I would say tell her. Yes, it will hurt, but in the end she is better off hearing it from you (that her management style was non-participatory and by cutting off contact entirely, she alienated you from the team) than her future boss. Chances are she won't appreciate it, seeing how well she took to your previous attempt. I particularly think you should do this if the "professional subject" degree means she will likely be taking on management positions after she completes the degree.

I agree about leaving out the "you're delaying me" part. She can figure that out on her own and it's irrelevant to her question of whether she has anything to do with your decision to drop the course.

(on preview: I can see where she might disagree with or ignore your email entirely. You're asking a Type-A to just stop planning and moving forward. Plus, you sound more "feelings-based" than she might be and maybe she just doesn't know how to read/respond to that. All speculation on my part of course.)
posted by ml98tu at 4:08 PM on March 10, 2008

Here is the text of some of the email I sent her, for those of you who think I need to learn to stick up for myself...

b33j, that is a great e-mail. You probably could not have done that e-mail better. But part of sticking up for yourself is follow-through, and sometimes escalating the tone of your communication. You can send her a polite e-mail now about how you couldn't work with her under those conditions, but it would have been better before you dropped out.

It sounds like you want to tell her, that it would be therapeutic, and that you know how to write another e-mail that will get the point across without being combative or hurtful.
posted by grouse at 4:12 PM on March 10, 2008

I'm going to say good for you for identifying a situation that's going to make you miserable and doing what it takes to extract yourself from it. Sometimes I feel like I spend so much time doing things that I feel obliged to do even though they drive me crazy. I applaud your self-awareness and self-determination!
posted by mccxxiii at 4:48 PM on March 10, 2008

Tell her. Pull no punches.
posted by medea42 at 4:48 PM on March 10, 2008

What are you hoping will happen if you tell her? What's the worst thing that could possibly happen if you tell her?
posted by box at 5:16 PM on March 10, 2008

no offense, but you really failed in this class. dealing with the annoying group partner to get the project done was your responsibility. if she bothered you, it was your responsibility to speak up and assert yourself. instead, you opted to quit. once you got your degree, and entered the 'real world', would you quit when faced with the same situation in the workplace?

tell her, see if you can salvage the class, and don't let people walk all over you next time. however, it's not her fault for being overbearing--it's your fault for not teaching yourself to deal with this kind of situation.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 5:55 PM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I disagree with most of the advice here. No need to discuss this with her at all. What do you hope to gain by telling her? It is not your job to change her for the rest of humanity. I do agree that you probably should have stood up to her a little more, but in light of the fact you did not, do not worry about it one bit.

Her asking the question is just causing another intentional conflict. She will respond to whatever you write and it will either be an elaborate justification of her position or an apology and sad tale about how she can't help herself.

I think you made a reasonable decision that you do not need to justify to her. Stay the course and do not respond to her.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:20 PM on March 10, 2008

You could just send her a simple one-word "Yes." email. Maybe not the way I'd go, but it's another option.

I disagree with Lesters, and applaude you for recognizing a bad set-up. Too often in the real world, people stay in bad jobs way too long. Leads to much unnecessary unhappiness.
posted by quinoa at 6:25 PM on March 10, 2008

It could be that the act of telling her will be good practice for you.
posted by amtho at 6:36 PM on March 10, 2008

Lester's sock puppet makes a good point here, but I'll take a different view.

In the workplace, the success criteria for a project is usually defined and shared (or at least should be) by those working on the project. In such an environment, it is critical to diplomatically raise issues as they appear, be they project-specific or person-specific, so that they can be addressed quickly so as to minimize risk and avoid jeopardizing the project's success.

In your circumstance, however, the success criteria for the project is a bit more complex; yes, it is vital that you and the other members of your team complete the project successfully, but it is also important that you each receive a grade appropriate for your efforts, and that you each learn as much from the project as you can.

If you're savvy enough to have attempted to deal with this person tactfully and directly (via your letter) and then elected to bow out when she ignored your contact, that is (as LSP suggests) a complete FAIL in the "real world". However, when you are in an educational environment rather than the workplace, priorities are different -- and I think it wholly appropriate that you elected to back away and concentrate on other things so as to minimize risk and avoid jeopardizing your education.

So, what do you say to this woman? Honest, tactful and minimal are the four keywords here. Honest, in that you communicate how she was a factor in your decision, tactful, in that you communicate this in a positive way that gives her an opportunity to learn and grow, and minimal, in that you don't belabor the point or distract her with too many words (something I'm still learning myself.)

Something like this, perhaps, and you'll pardon if I crib from my own words above:
"In the workplace, the success of a project is of paramount importance to the company, and so to the employees of that company. In an educational environment, however, a project is primarily a means by which multiple students can each contribute towards a common goal in order to learn from the experience.

After careful consideration of several factors, including but not limited to your behavior prior to and following my letter from [date], I have concluded that my educational interests will be better served by concentrating on other opportunities for the remainder of this term. My hope is that in the near future I will be able to partner on a similar project with another individual whose interest in the shared educational experience outweighs their interest in obtaining the best possible grade and/or managing all aspects of the project.

Having said that, you're the kind of can-do person who would be a great asset for any team in the 'real world', and I sincerely hope we find ourselves working together at some point in the future."

Good luck, and all best."
Reading it over, the line beginning "My hope..." is optional, and depends almost entirely on whether you think she's too dense to get the point otherwise.
posted by davejay at 6:51 PM on March 10, 2008

Honest, tactful and minimal are the four keywords here.

Uh, evidentally I need to go back to school myself.
posted by davejay at 6:53 PM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

In law school, I sat next to a woman I really liked, but who reeked of cigarette smoke. After a couple of weeks of this, I relocated away from her. The woman asked me the next day if I moved because of the smell of her smoke, and I blurted out Yes without even thinking of it. She and I are still friends, and she has stopped smoking (she stopped within a month or two of that conversation), and we appreciate each other's honesty. But I would never have told her if she hadn't asked me point blank. Since this woman asked you, you can be honest.

But I also agree that you could have found an alternative to delaying your degree for a year. That's a huge cost to you, and I like to think you could have found a way around that, although perhaps that's wishful thinking. Group projects in school are very different from those in the work world, and it's very difficult to communicate in a distance learning program. But at the very least, I would have suggested emailing her a second time and asking if she got the first email ... and specifically requesting that she reply to it. People find it harder to ignore a request to do something than to ignore a complaint. I realize this is not what you're asking about, but perhaps it's a lesson for the next time.
posted by Capri at 7:21 PM on March 10, 2008

I agree with grouse that your original email was well-written. By the way, if I'm not sure how to respond to a confrontational email, I will sometimes ignore it. That usually means it's RIGHT ON TARGET.
posted by desjardins at 9:46 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would not be impressed by that email. That would just prove to me that you actually will take my orders without being bold enough to actually put that disgruntled attitude to real action by actively taking a lead. Leaders will lead when there doesn't seem to be any other leadership taking the role, and by your inactivity to actually lead the areas you claim responsibility for, someone else clearly needs to handle it instead. If you want the leadership role in something, don't ask for it. Lead it.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 12:26 AM on March 11, 2008

The one trick that I've always found effective at dealing with potentially tricky interpersonal situations like this: Make it about you and the facts, not the other person.

That is, always be talking in the first person, about yourself. The second the word "you" leaves your mouth the other person will instantly be on the defensive and getting anything resolved becomes so much harder.

Talk about things that happened in strictly factual tones, don't imply motivation or intent.

Also, short and sweet is more likely to get read and understood.
posted by Skorgu at 5:29 AM on March 11, 2008

This whole situation sounds suspiciously like a boss I used to have. She'd steamroll all over me, then come and ask if it was something she said. For me, it was bait, and I refused to take it, because if I said the wrong thing, she'd punish me (being my boss and all).

Since this girl isn't your boss, you don't have the problem of being punished for saying the wrong thing. So, here are your options: you could keep mum, and she will continue on her merry way, steamrolling over other people, or you could tell her, and offer her the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson about managing people.

I fall on the side of telling her. Don't point fingers, but don't soft-soap it either. In fact, I'd forward the email you'd originally sent to her, indicating that you'd already conveyed my concerns about the project to her, and when these concerns were ignored, you made the decision to defer the course a year. She'll infer the rest by herself.

And don't listen to Quarter Pincher and lester's sock puppet. In the real world, this is called "voting with your feet" and it's a disastrous thing for a manager. She lost a valuable member of the team because of her stupidity and inability to manage, and the project will suffer as a consequence. You, on the other hand, did everything you should have done - voiced your concerns with her, and when that went ignored, appealed to the higher authority (the lecturer). When still nothing happened, you walked.
posted by LN at 5:30 AM on March 11, 2008

whoops. Forward the email conveying your concerns.
posted by LN at 5:35 AM on March 11, 2008

You, on the other hand, did everything you should have done - voiced your concerns with her, and when that went ignored, appealed to the higher authority (the lecturer).

I disagree that b33j did everything she should have done. While her first steps were right, sometimes you have to stick with things a little. And while voting with one's feet is a good way to sidestep a sticky situation, if the consequences of leaving are worse than the consequences of staying then it's not such a hot idea.

To me, delaying one's career a whole year seems a bit over-the-top for what happened here, and if b33j says that she has done this to the other student her comments might be disregarded. When I was a student I frequently ended up leading workgroups. If someone sent me an e-mail about my working style, then dropped out of class before I had a chance to discuss it with him, and then blamed me for serious consequences of this choice, I would think it was his problem, not mine.
posted by grouse at 5:50 AM on March 11, 2008

But grouse, that's the point. B33j did convey her concerns to the leader of the group, and those concerns were ignored. The other student took no opportunity whatsoever to discuss B33j's concerns, and in fact, didn't respond at all and "stopped all contact". How exactly was she supposed to "stick it out"? Just bend over and let the other student run the project? B33j indicates that the course is being graded in part on how much work each member of the team puts in. If she sticks it out, she risks getting a bad grade because the other student did all the work. I fail to see how that's better than deferring the course a year and getting a better shot at a better grade, not to mention a better grip on the subject matter! If I had been in b33j's shoes, I'd have weighed what the benefit would be to take the class with the other student running things (i.e., possible bad grade and learning bloody little), versus taking the course another year with another project team.

The fact that B33j took her concerns to the professor indicates to me that the other student had time enough to respond, but chose not to. Now that she's withdrawn from the course, suddenly the student surfaces, wondering if it was something she said.

B33j, for what it's worth, I think you made the right choice. It's your education. You know how you learn, and what is going to be best for your career in the long term. Putting things back a year, in the grand scheme of things, may be small potatoes.
posted by LN at 6:29 AM on March 11, 2008

Just bend over and let the other student run the project?

No, that's not what I'm suggesting at all. I'm saying that when her concerns were unaddressed after a polite e-mail, the next step is to send a more assertive e-mail.

It's all fine and good to do this once. If next year, she gets into a similar situation (which isn't impossible to imagine as this is a common story in academic group projects), she should think hard about whether she will choose to delay completion of her degree for another year or choose to take control of the situation. She will have to deal with difficult co-workers again in her life, and learning assertiveness is easier in an educational envrionment where the consequences of your actions have limited scope.
posted by grouse at 6:42 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think you and I will just have to agree to disagree on this point, grouse. It's a distance course, meaning that there's little b33j can do if a more agressive email gets no response. It's not like she can have a face-to-face with these people to hash out the problem, and we all know what arguing over email/internet is like. :)
posted by LN at 8:05 AM on March 11, 2008

So if the same thing happens again next year, would your advice be to repeat the same course of action? To delay finishing her degree again by another year?
posted by grouse at 8:12 AM on March 11, 2008

Nope, but her experience this year will hopefully help her pick a better group to start with next year. As she says in her original question, "I made the mistake of teaming up with another high-achiever."
posted by LN at 11:10 AM on March 11, 2008

Lie, lie, lie. This person's bad acting forced you to drop out of an important course. You need to keep as far away from her as possible. It doesn't hurt you to give a false reason, and giving her an innocuous one avoids any hurt to her, not to mention any revenge.

Her request for a reason just continues her domination. You need to put her behind you, right now.
posted by KRS at 11:21 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

ok, i was kind of hasty last night, and i'd like to clarify a few points. i think you were wrong to withdraw from the class, but that's my opinion. you're really the only person who can determine if that was the best course of action for you. obviously, you thought it was.

i didn't read your last night but upon doing so today, found it kind of weak for what it was supposed to achieve. and, along with rereading your question, I realize that your major concern is her feelings about the situation. you are making an assumption when you say she will be hurt by this. yeah, maybe she will, but she'll get over it--and you seem quite capable of expressing yourself in such a way to minimize her hurt.

it could also prove to be a valuable lesson for her, and help her be a better person down the road. and that's why you should tell her. i used to be this way--and probably still am, but i learned to listen to those around me because someone like you spoke up.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 12:02 PM on March 11, 2008

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