Friday, February 16, 2007

Working w/my colleague makes me go postal

Dear Here's the Thing,

I'm an engineer. I work in a world where you might think that clear communications between people is essential. But it is a daily struggle to work with a large number of people with varying levels of language and logic) skills.

There is this one co-worker that I have been called upon to work closely with. His emails are barely readible and I often find that speaking to him is like pulling teeth (and leaves me with no paper trail to follow if I need to remember details). I think he might be dyslexic. When we work on projects where we share duties, we end up stepping all over each other because we can't seem to get in sync. I've known him a long time and he is a very nice guy. But working with him makes me feel postal. Sometimes I cross the line and correct his emails to others, making him and me) look a bit of a fool.

I'm a big believer in being honest with people, but I don't think having a heart-to-heart with this guy is going to cure his dyslexia. And I don't think asking my boss not to pair me with him is going to make me look good.

I really just never want to work with him again! What to do?

Thanks for your help,
Geek with a problem

Dear Geek,

This is a pretty sticky situation. But I’m sure you already know that, or else you’d have solved the problem yourself by now!

Not knowing what your boss is like, I can’t guess how he or she would react if you asked not to work with this problem communicator any more. But you seem to think that doing so would reflect poorly on you and, perhaps, hurt your coworker’s feelings. And it sounds like you feel a little mean-spirited (or anal retentive?) for correcting his emails.

You state that you are a firm believer in being honest with people. So my guess is that the honest route has been successful for you in the past. And, if that’s true, than you’re probably pretty good at it. I think you should play to your own strengths.

No, honesty isn’t going to cure dyslexia. It’s not going to improve his writing. (Trust me, on this I have plenty of experience.) However, do you think it’s possible that in an honest heart-to-heart talk you could try to come up with a better system of communication?

For example, can you tell him his writing is difficult to understand and that it would be much easier if the two of you could speak in person? But you say talking to him is like pulling teeth. Why? Is it just that he’s unavailable or is it that he’s also difficult to understand in person? If it’s the former, maybe he’ll make himself more available after you’ve told him that you really want to conduct business face to face. If it’s the latter, well, painful as it may be, you stand a better chance of getting clarification when you’re in a room talking to someone than you do over email. You might just have to keep dogging him with questions like: “What do you mean? Can you give some examples? I’m hearing you say X, Y, and Z…is that right?” Take notes and follow up these conversations with summary emails so that you have your paper trail.

Also, as much as I hate tables and matrices and spreadsheets--which are all the rage among organized, successful, highly-functioning people--I suppose they have some utility. If you feel constantly out of sync with this guy, would it help to have some formal method of assigning duties and tracking milestones and deadlines?

When he sends emails (the ones you’re always tempted to correct), are they supposed to be speaking for the whole project team? In other words, would it be possible for you to write these emails instead? Again, I’m not sure of the context, but if you’re prone to editing his emails it might just be easier to write them yourself.

Bottom line, I think you should talk to him. I trust you can be honest and kind at the same time. At the very least, you might feel better for having stated your case and, hence, be able to refrain from going postal. And if he’s the nice guy you say he is, he should try to work with you on this.

Good luck!

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