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As I was meeting with my manager the other day, he asked me who in the department I looked up to, besides my mentor. I named several people. Then he asked me if there was anyone in the company I would rather not work with, or that I would be happy if they just left.

Now admittedly I don't enjoy working with all my coworkers equally, but under that kind of pressure I honestly couldn't think of anyone I wanted to call out. So instead I told him that one person I really did not like working with had already left, which was true. He still seemed to want to know about someone who was still working at the company, though.

I'm wondering if it is related to performance evaluations coming up. I wanted to be honest, but I also was hesitant to throw anyone under the bus even though some of my coworkers are less deserving than others. I was also afraid that by criticizing others I could make myself look bad. I have a good relationship with my manager and am confident it was not a trap, but it felt that way.

How can I answer a question like that truthfully but politely (and ethically!), and with a minimum of damage to other coworkers' careers?

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22  
IMHO you answered it well, and you should stay the course. –  MrFox Apr 9 at 17:02

4 Answers 4

up vote 38 down vote accepted

You can make it about you, plural or the interaction more than about the other person. You can also soften it by saying something positive about the other person. Some (approximate) examples of things I have either said (as an employee) or heard (as a manager) include:

  • "Alice and I seem to have very different styles of interactions; I find her pushy while she finds me too reticent. She works great with Bob and I work great with Carol, so it's not a problem with either of us on our own -- but something about the two of us makes for frustrating interactions."

  • "I like David but for some reason he doesn't seem to like me much. I don't know what that's about, but all else being equal, it might be better for us not to work closely so he doesn't get aggravated."

  • "Ellen is an early-morning person and I prefer to get routine tasks out of the way first so I can focus on harder work in the afternoons. One of us could change our routine if we were working together, of course." (Implied: "...but we don't want to".)

  • "Fred is smart and I sure could learn a lot from him, but I have a lot of trouble understanding his accent and I can tell he's self-conscious about it, so pair-programming doesn't work as well as stuff that can be done via email/wiki/IM/etc."

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3  
I've never been asked (nor asked) that question directly. Asking for constructive feedback from peers as part of performance reviews is pretty common in my experience, but there it's not so much "who would you rather not work with" as "what is Gina doing well and what could she be doing better?". –  Monica Cellio Apr 9 at 17:10
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I think this sort of question from a manager is very uncommon. (I'm 40, worked in software the whole time, from startups to 300-developer projects.) Yes, ask outright for an evaluation of particular people, but not asking as described. –  Jonathan Hartley Apr 10 at 7:58

It's fair to ask "why are you asking?"

Performance reviews may be a reason, or they may be replanning who is on what team, or trying to figure out a team leader for a new project. There's plenty of reasons to ask - he may even be touching base. But particularly when there's an attempt to probe for a final answer, you're fair to say "with respect to what, exactly?"

It's also fair to say the truth - you don't like speaking ill of others when the issues between you are (I assume) somewhat minor. If you had such a problem with a coworker that you couldn't do your work, you'd be be bringing the problem up in meetings with your boss -- so the problems can't be that bad. It's also fair to say that where everyone is a mixed blessing (being human and all), that you'd love some better insight than just "people who you are least compatible with" - for example, I have some great colleagues who I'd never want to work for. And I have some colleagues who are great team players, but very bad at certain elements of the work, while great at others. So I'd pick them for one task and make sure that they had serious mentoring for another.

From there, I really love Monica's insights on how to relay interaction issues - focus on the issue, not the person. And short and sweet.

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To me this sounds like there may be an upcoming organization change and he wants to place you best, OR there is a pending reduction in force. I suspect the latter is more likely.

Your manager is fishing for feedback to support his decision, which he has probably already made.

This is a rather unfair position to put people in, but one that is rather common. As a senior developer I have frequently been asked by my manager to evaluate other members of my team. Honesty is best, also asking your manager frankly as to why he is asking the question may help you answer fairly.

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I think it’s fine to say that there isn’t anyone at the company you’d rather not work with, if that’s true.

You might be really happy with all of your colleagues, or at least happy enough that you wouldn’t want any of them to lose their job just to make you slightly happier.

I wouldn’t be afraid to say that just because your manager prompted you again after you said there wasn’t anyone. The manager may well be aware that speaking ill of co-workers feels awkward to you, and may have just been trying to make you feel like you didn’t have to hold back out of politeness.

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