Have you ever had to work with someone you don’t trust? And I don’t just mean work on the same team or see them at the coffee machine. I mean have you ever had to depend on someone you don’t trust to get your work done? Have you been on the hook for something that you can’t deliver without their support? Have you ever had to endure that sinking feeling that your fate is in the hands of someone who doesn’t take that responsibility seriously? If you have, you know that it really, really sucks.
Before we talk about what you can do, we should probably differentiate between a few different versions of lack of trust. Let’s do them in ascending order of villainy.
Reasons You Don’t Trust the Person
I Don’t Know You
The most basic form of trust gap is one that stems from a lack of connection with the person you’re dependent on. If a colleague has just been hired and, in week one, you’re assigned to work with them on a major project, you might be nervous about how it’s going to go. Totally understandable. You’re counting on someone that has no track record—at least not one you’re aware of.
If you are in this situation, you can try a few things to set your mind at ease:
- Schedule time for the two of you to talk through the boss’ expectations and make sure that you’re interpreting your roles and responsibilities the same way. If not, seek clarification before you start.
- Share some of your experiences on similar assignments and ask about theirs to calibrate on approaches.
- Ask a couple of open-ended questions to get a sense of their comfort level, such as “What do you think is the most important part to get right?” or “What do you think will be the trickiest part of this?”
- Agree on a few milestones where you can touch base and assess progress before any deadlines. Be transparent about the purpose of these check-ins, “Because we haven’t worked together before, let’s share our progress so we can tweak the approach as we go along.”
Start your relationship with a new colleague by acknowledging that it will take some time to get accustomed to one another. Be casual about it and make it clear (without saying it) that you realize that how the project goes is more of a risk for them than it is for you. Alignment and empathy should rule the day when you work with a colleague you don’t know.
I Don’t Have Confidence in You
The stakes get higher when you have to rely on a colleague that has a spotty track record. If you can think of a few examples where the person’s work wasn’t up to snuff or they failed to meet deadlines, it’s natural that your anxiety levels might be rising.
If you’re in this situation, you can try any of the following to increase the likelihood they’ll deliver:
- If possible, take some time with both your manager and your colleague to hear the boss’ expectations and to get clear on who owns which parts of the task
- Document the expectations in an email or shared file as something you can all refer to as you go
- Share how you’re approaching the task and ask for any input and then ask your colleague to reciprocate by sharing their approach. If you’re concerned about the approach, ask for your manager to weigh in (Ask for feedback on both your approach and your colleague’s so it doesn’t feel lopsided or vindictive.)
- Check-in on the agreed milestones and be transparent about the issues that arise if the person doesn’t get the timing or the quality right. “It’s important that I have your draft by Thursday at noon because my edits are due Friday morning.”
- If things aren’t going well, ask your manager for some coaching on how to handle the situation. “We agreed that Sam would have the draft to me by noon and I haven’t received it yet. I sent a reminder this morning and I followed up at 2. What would you advise me to do?”
If you’re working with someone who is known to drop the ball, make sure other people see what’s going on. Visibility and accountability should rule the day when you need to work with a colleague in whom you don’t have confidence.
I Fear What You Will Do
The most threatening situation is when you are forced to rely on a colleague that has harmed you in the past. It might be that you have evidence that they’ve trash-talked you to members of the team. Maybe they’ve tried to sabotage your work. It could even be that they give you the creeps and you don’t feel physically safe around them (If you’ve been sexually harassed by a colleague, go directly to your manager or to HR.)
Although you might default to being silent, acting small, or being innocuous to protect yourself, that will only leave more room for the person to take advantage of you. If you’re dependent on someone whom you have legitimate reasons to be concerned about, you can try one or more of these to mitigate any threats:
- State your goals for the work and acknowledge that the pairing might be difficult. “It’s important to me that both of our ideas show up in the final product. Based on our work on the ACME project, I’m concerned that my ideas will get short shrift.”
- Talk through the situation with a mentor, coach, or trusted teammate to help you assess the situation objectively and to let you know if you’re blowing things out of proportion or to get support if the person’s conduct is unacceptable.
- Meet in public spaces to reduce the likelihood that the person will behave. inappropriately. If you’re working remotely, invite a third person to be a part of your calls.
- In severe cases, share your experiences with your manager and ask if you (or they) can be reassigned.
If you’re working with someone who has taken advantage of you, make sure you aren’t letting them walk all over you. Enlist the help of other team members to shine a light on the person’s behavior. Attention and support should rule the day when you are stuck working with a colleague you fear.
It’s dreadful to have to work with someone you don’t trust. Don’t give in, clam up, or shut down. Own the situation and do what you can to get a good outcome. With an ounce of courage and a dash of luck, you might just trust them more when you’re done.