hostile work

How to confront untrustworthy co-workers

Yuck. Can you feel your stomach tightening just thinking about the prospect of confronting an untrustworthy co-worker? Not fun for anyone. But there comes a time when the only way forward, the only way to resolve the issues you’ve been dealing with and stop the emotional and mental energy that is being exhausted is to confront the situation head on… to have the confrontation… to have the conversation.

But not all situations warrant the same approach. Here are two very different approaches depending on what you believe is at the core of your colleague’s actions. So consider the following:

Approach 1: You think, deep down, your co-worker is a GOOD person

This isn’t my first rodeo. My guess is that if you believe you can’t trust your co-worker, you will naturally believe they are a “bad” person. Their heart is “black as night” and all they really want to do is punish you for no good reason. Not so fast. More often than not, when others act in ways that we see as not trustworthy, they are scared. They may either see you as a direct threat to them personally or they may see you as representing the change the organization is going through. In either case, it is actually not about you. It is more about them and their fear of losing what they have. So, how can you tell? Consider the following characteristics that indicate they may actually not be “all that bad” after all.

  • They have “lots” of friends at the office – and not just surface friends. They seem to actually know other people on a semi-personal basis
  • They have displayed “random acts of kindness.” They have given gifts, written thank you notes, or other acts of thoughtfulness to others in the office going through a tough time
  • They have been married / in a long-term relationship for some extended period of time (10+ years minimum). Don’t underestimate this important piece of information
  • You hear positive comments about him or her from people you like

If you checked off the majority of the above, you’ve got a good person who is frankly scared – and you represent what he / she is afraid of. You are a scary monster to him or her. Time to make you less ferocious.

Before we jump in, let me take a moment to clarify what it takes to develop trust. Trust is a simple equation. Here it is:

TRUST = CREDIBILITY + AUTHENTICITY / VULNERABILITY

In this case, you are likely seen as intimidating to your co-worker (hence the untrustworthy behavior they exhibit towards you). They see you as having too much credibility – more than they have. So, you need to balance the equation. Add more authenticity / vulnerability to the mix.

  1. Make yourself vulnerable / not a threat – Back in my graduate school days, I did an internship with an organization that had a very strong culture – a culture not conducive to trusting outsiders – particularly one’s coming from a fancy graduate school. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get anyone to trust me. I smiled. I was friendly. I listened more than I did anything else. It just didn’t seem to matter. They refused to invite me to anything, they were resistant to sharing any information with me and they largely acted as though they were ready to see me go. As one member of the organization said during one of my first few weeks “you weren’t my first choice.” Always a heart-warming welcome. It wasn’t until I participated in the department golf outing and proceeded to play the worst round in my life that they decided I was o.k. Believe me, there wasn’t anything scary about me that day. In their minds, if anyone can be that bad, how could there be anything scary about him / her.
  2. Be transparent – sometimes others don’t trust you because they don’t know what your intentions are. Share what you hope to accomplish, what you are thinking / feeling and in general try to be an open book. If they know where you are coming from, they may realize, you aren’t looking to get them.
  3. Be complimentary – don’t overdo it, but a well placed compliment about your colleague’s skills, accomplishments or general approach can go a long way. If they see you as a supporter and a teammate, they may just soften their stance.

 

Approach 2: You think, deep down, your co-worker is a BAD person

Then there are those individuals that are just difficult to work with. They just don’t seem to play well with others – period. They cause trouble and havoc wherever they go, spending more time back-stabbing and manipulating than actually doing productive work. Note what I just said, they spend “more time back-stabbing and manipulating than actually doing productive work.” In other words, they have honed their craft. You will not be able to beat them at their own game. So how can you tell if you are dealing with one of these co-workers? Consider the opposite of the above:

  • They have no friends at work
  • They rarely act in ways that are kind… and when they do, it feels manipulative
  • They don’t appear to have a pattern of long-term relationships outside of work (revolving partners, rocky personal relationship, few friends, etc…)
  • You hear bad things about him or her from just about everyone you talk to

In these cases, you need to walk carefully. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Keep your distance – The further you can get from him / her, the better. In cases like these, they are on the edge of being terminated so no need to have them drag you down with them.
  2. Document everything – keep meticulous records on your interactions so if you need to confront him / her, you have facts to lean on. These folks tend to be master manipulators, so without facts, you are sunk.
  3. Confront them in person – if it comes to the point you need to confront him / her, do it in private and do it in person (e-mail will spin out of control). Simply state what you’ve observed, your concerns and what your expectations are going forward. Ex: “Katie, we’ve had multiple conversations over the last month in which you have promised to get me the information I need each week. I still have yet to get that information. My concern is that you are intentionally not helping me. Is that the case? Can you commit to getting me the information I need this week?” They will not like it and they likely will not respond well (it might even get worse), but you need to do this in order to move to #4.
  4. Get your boss involved – If you’ve done everything listed above, it should be a simple conversation. Your boss will ask: “have you talked to him / her directly?” “Do you have any examples / proof?” With answers to those, you are set. Without those, you look just as bad as your untrustworthy co-worker does.

Whew! That was a long post this week… but an important one. Before you wring the neck of your co-worker or go at him / her “guns blazing,” assess the situation, see if it really is them or the context you are in and proceed accordingly. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up with an ally in the end? Or perhaps your co-worker will be “invited to leave.” Either way, you win!

 

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