In short: How do I tell my boss I don't want to join this team, or how do I negotiate conditions for joining if needed be?

Long version:

There's a group in my company who is responsible for developing a product (say product B) I was originally not involved, but was supposed to incorporate it in a different application I'm building (say product C).

At least one person in this group is someone I'm in very bad personal terms with, and he even explicitly asked our manager that I wouldn't be involved in another precursor project (say product A) that needed to be integrated within product B. The manager agreed, and this guy was very arrogant and disrespectful to me about it. I've complained to the manager about his attitude. I was then assured that he indeed had his request granted (something in the lines of "I don't care how he does it as long as he delivers"), and given his later behavior, I'm sure no serious advertence were given to him from our manager.

After that, I've adopted a "not my problem" philosophy related to products A and B, focusing first on independent parts of product C. And, to my knowledge, this team should be doing some nice job on product A, but they're failing to integrate it with product B, and product B in general is being very poorly executed.

Hence, some people on the team started suggesting that they should use parts of my project to compose and validate product B (which are parts I haven't even started). And my boss even considered making me joining product's B team.

I've tried to deal with this professionally, and scheduled a meeting with this team to share some ideias (no management involved). They were very dismissive of my ideas, didn't contribute much of their work, and even gave me some very vague answers to questions that probably should have been answered with "I don't know" or "We haven't done that yet". They even claimed to have finalized a milestone, only to admit this wasn't the case when I've asked about some specific parts of it.

So basically, they'll likely need to redo/finish much of their work on product B, and also do a lot to validate parts of it. I think they are on a path for failing their delivery, but they haven't been honest about.

While this indeed blocks me from finishing product C, which is currently my responsibility, it also puts me in a very uncomfortable position. I really don't want to be part of their failure, and it would be hard to be the whistleblower on their fake progress. Most importantly, I don't feel like working with them personally (though I like, and I'm in good terms with most people in project B). It would also be very difficult to implement all the testing they've skipped.

Much worse, that guy has almost zero knowledge on the frameworks of product B, so he's been basically trying to tell other people what they should do on it (because he can't do it himself) and giving strong opinions to management (even about project C, without consulting me first). Because many people on project B are interns or recent graduates, while he's mid level, people generally comply, and management doesn't care. But I'd hate to be bossed around by a guy who made a serious point he doesn't want to work with me. I'd also dislike finishing almost every meeting with "this is a crappy idea, do it yourself if you think otherwise".

On a large meeting with our boss and other senior management involved, some people in team B have shown interest in me joining them. But I think that was just for the show (they're likely pressed to ask for help, and they've been insisting on hiring new staff), so I'd look bad in case I respond that I don't want to cooperate with them.

I'm considering to have a private call with my boss (the whole company is working remotely). I'd like to frame this situation from a business point of view, but having me join their team does have business sense. Nonetheless, I think it would be just too disrespectful of him to just force me into working with a guy he previously granted the option of not working with me (for known social issues). I would also look like "the difficult guy" if I asked the other guy to be kicked out. Finally I would also sound very unprofessional to start pointing the problems and poor choices that have been made on project B. Our boss hates to be involved in technical meetings, so it would also be a hassle to have him closely involved in all my meetings.

My current ideia would be asking my boss not to make me join them immediately, manifest that while I don't feel like joining them, I would be professional about it, but that the rest of the team should be held to some professionalism standards too. I can also propose that I'll start working on related parts, that they can reuse. I'm afraid I'd just sound like the "not a team player" and that the boss would basically do nothing about it.

  • Have you been formally asked to join the team yet? – sf02 Sep 23 '20 at 20:55
  • @sf02 No, but it was mentioned by my boss on a large meeting, who also asked to schedule a meeting to discuss this. – Rumpard Sep 23 '20 at 20:59
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    What’s the actual question? This just reads like a rant. – nick012000 Sep 24 '20 at 1:56
  • @nick012000: As said in the beginning: "In short: How do I tell my boss I don't want to join this team, or how do I negotiate conditions for joining if needed be?" – Rumpard Sep 24 '20 at 3:35
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    Not an answer, just an annecdote: Programmer A doesnt want to Join Team B. 3 people in Team B doesnt want Programmer A either. Upper management decides its super duper important and make him join anyway. He quits. To the surprise of management. I know, we live in this be proffesional about everything illusion. But sometimes terms are so bad, being in separate rooms is just the way to go. Can you have private talk with "that" Developer? Resolving this issue with him would be the one chance at joining be ok longterm for you. Likely it wont work, it may be worth a shot though. – Benjamin Sep 24 '20 at 5:05

This is difficult. Seeing that that guy probably doesn't want you on his team either, this decision seems to come from management who have no knowledge of the underlying social dynamic. Either that or, as suggested in a comment, management knows and expects you two to professionally overcome your differences, which limits your choice to option 2.

You have three options:

  1. Talk to your boss. Find a way to diplomatically express that you do not want to work on this team. Maybe you can find business reasons, but being honest about the situation might work best. For business problems, there are always solutions. If management wants you on that team, they are going to find compelling reasons and they are going to try to disarm your objections. Being upfront about the social problems might work better. A disadvantage of this strategy is that you may be viewed as uncooperative or a problematic employee, because most standards of professionalism require people to overcome personal differences.
  2. The professional approach. If you are assigned, you're going to have to deal with it. Maybe you can find a way to cooperate with that guy on a professional basis. This may involce a very clear aggreement on responsibilities, rights and duties between you. It is a risky strategy, because neither you nor that guy appear to be cooperative spirits.
  3. Pact with the devil: Both you and that guy do not want to work together. You could try talking to him and find a strategy with him to prevent having to work together. If both you and him tell your bosses that this is a bad idea and should not happen, they may change their minds. This is a risky option.

Personally, I would recommend strategy 2, as this is most aligned with modern ideals of professionalism.

  • Boss knows about the bad relationship terms, at least since the episode related to product A. And that guy has been on non-negotiable terms in the past (agrees to do something, does something else), so trusting him is not an option. He'll prefer publicly claiming he's okay with everything so I'm the one looking bad. – Rumpard Sep 24 '20 at 12:52
  • @Rumpard I'd attempt to use the card that you know you won't be a good fit within that team. You don't have to explain what that means. – Jonast92 Sep 24 '20 at 15:42
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    this decision seems to come from management who have no knowledge of the underlying social dynamic - This is an unqualified statement. It also could be management are aware and don't care. As a leader, I've been in the unenviable position of having to pair people who don't want to work together. Sometimes it's the needs of the project. Sometimes it's the needs of the team. In any case, when it happens, I put forth an explicit expectation of professionalism with the clear indication that they are dependent on each other for staying in the organization. – Joel Etherton Sep 24 '20 at 17:14
  • I like the general content of this answer. I think #2 would be easier to process if it was titled "Be professional" instead of "Suck it up". #3 is dangerous (though still an option). It signals management that the two have no intention of working together and will be "professionally subordinate". – Joel Etherton Sep 24 '20 at 17:17
  • I have updated my answer to reflect feedback from your comments. I didn't consider the option that management may be aware of the dynamics, but this is quite realistic. I would expect employees to overcome such difficulties. – NXP5Z Sep 24 '20 at 17:53

Given that your boss has already known about the issues between yourself and the problem guy - I don't think it's a secret that you need to keep private. That said, listening to it, I think the problems of the woeful Product B go way beyond this guy. Even if he quit tomorrow, I don't think Project B would be a fun place to be.

So, I think you need to have a discussion with both your boss and whoever is theoretically in charge of Product B about the issues of the project and how you would want to be a means to make it better, and not be sucked into the same death march as everyone else on it. Things on my list would be:

  • Whether or not it's met it's milestones are not clear. The team cannot clearly articulate what has been done vs. not done given that you got "yes" and "no" in the same meeting. The team should be challenged to demonstrate and qualify what's been marked as completed.
  • There seems to be a dearth of qualified technical decision makers. There's you, there's problem guy, and then there's a bunch of not very experienced folks - the project should clarify it's technical decision making. Who signs off on a design? How is a proper plan or design articulated and committed to? When you have ideas or a proposed direction, who signs off? What the heck the role of problem guy if he doesn't have expertise on the technology being used? Let's get a clear process up and going - it will do the project heaps of good.
  • Can you and who ever is in charge plus the team also review and re-commit to the future milestones with an open and honest (blame free) discussion about what actually has to be done?

Very little of that is the problem guy - but in the "how do we make decisions?" conversation, if the answer is "all work on this project has to be blessed by Problem Guy" - I think you need to raise at that time that Problem Guy has made it well known that he doesn't want to work with you. Given that, you have no interest in working with him, either, and if they need you on Project B, then it would be wise to find something else for Problem Guy to do. It shouldn't be so hard, if he's not a relevant technical expert, then he has no business weighing in...

I can't tell from your description of Product B, who the center of the leadership is. Projects work best when they have a good, clear blame line. Someone has to be the final responsible person for how the team's decisions play out in terms of both schedule and quality. That rather doesn't sound like your manager, given that he wants no part of the technical side. So there must be some other technical leader held accountable in this way. If there is no one, and you are the highest ranked person on the project -- it might be you... - in all cases, that leader should be in alignment with you and your boss on the discussion points above.

I think you can frame all of it as "this isn't a project that delights me, it sounds like a real mess... but I'm willing to get in there and help. But before I do, I have some criteria for success - this project isn't running well, and if I devote my time to it, I want to fix it... here's what I see and need to know that I have the authority to fix..."

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