Here’s a conundrum I see frequently. You’re completely dependent on your colleagues to do their work (well and on time), but you’re too busy to keep tabs on their progress. So, depending on your personality, you go one of two ways: 1) you stress, worry, and fret about the likelihood that they’ll let you down and, in the process, cripple your productivity; or 2) you throw up your hands, cede control, trust that everything will be ok and hope like hell that you don’t get an unwelcome surprise at the 11th hour.

Those are crappy options.

Do You Worry and Fret?

Option #1 is terrible because the more you stress and worry, well…the more stressed and worried you are…and that’s bad on its own. But to make matters worse, the more you stress and worry, the less productive you’ll become. I’ve written before about how failing to manage your thoughtload detracts from your ability to manage your workload. So, can we agree that option #1 sucks?

Do You Trust Blindly?

Option #2 ain’t great either. There are many legitimate reasons why you shouldn’t feel confident in passively putting your fate in the hands of a colleague. For example:

  • They’re new, and you don’t know if they have the skills to be successful
  • They’ve been around forever, and they’ve botched jobs like this before
  • They seem distracted by other priorities
  • The way they approach tasks like these is questionable
  • They don’t know all the key players who have to be on board with the plan
  • They’re great with the big ideas but terrible at thinking through the details
  • They’re great with the details, but the ideas are incremental at best

I could go on and on. There are infinite reasons why you might not trust your colleague to do what you’re counting on them to do. Option #2 is just as much of a no-go!

When You Don’t Trust the Person, Trust the Process

Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between naïve trust and unproductive worry. There is a third way. That third option is to invest time in aligning around how you will approach the task and then trust the process instead of the person.

Unfortunately, most people I meet are so busy that in their haste to get going, they shortchange the process conversations that would make life so much calmer, more efficient, and less stressful. Unless you trust your colleague completely, it’s good to put more stock in a good process. (The amount of time you invest should be proportionate to the project’s length, magnitude, and complexity. It could be as little as five minutes.)

I’ve distilled this conversation into a discussion guide to give you a few new questions that will foster alignment and increase your confidence that the person will deliver. Remember, your colleague is likely in the same position as you, wondering whether you’re trustworthy or not. That means that you both need to answer the questions, listen for any misalignment, and flex your approach to come to a mutually agreed-upon plan.

Define the Objective

If you’re concerned that the person might have different perspectives, motives, or end goals than you, make sure you’re coming to an agreement on the objective of the work before diving in.

  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Who is this for? How might they define success differently than us?
  • Where does it fit with other initiatives or commitments?

Two people discussing a process flow shown on a whiteboardDescribe Good and Bad

If you’re worried about the quality of the person’s work, make sure you’re being specific about the difference between acceptable and unacceptable work.

  • What would be a home run on this?
  • What is the minimum we have to accomplish?
  • What outcomes would be a concern or judged as a failure?

Discuss the Approach

If you suspect that the person might take shortcuts or neglect parts of the process that are important, get into some detail about the steps that are required.

  • How are you thinking about approaching this?
  • What do we need to do for you to have confidence in the process?
  • How much time should we allow for each of these steps?

Determine the Stakeholders

If you’re nervous about how the person will manage the interpersonal aspects of moving the task forward, spend some time talking about the key players.

  • Who are the key stakeholders for this?
  • Who has sway over the decision? What are they looking for? What influences them?
  • Who has valuable perspectives we need to include?

Set Criteria

If the task involves making a decision, clarify the criteria for the decision from the start.

  • What are the criteria we should use to evaluate our decisions?
  • How should we prioritize the criteria?
  • Which criteria should affect how we implement the decision but not what decision we make?

Set Guardrails

If you’re worried that the person will either be too quick to ask for input or too slow, talk about your comfort levels with issues and set the standards for when and how you will alert one another to any concerns.

  • When should we involve one another or check-in?
  • What scenarios would warrant re-evaluating the plan?
  • When would we need to escalate this to another level?

Plan for Issues

No matter whether you trust the person implicitly or not, it’s worth spending a couple of minutes anticipating what could go wrong and creating an “in case of emergency break glass” game plan.

  • What issues can we anticipate?
  • How would we handle those types of issues?
  • What will we do if something unanticipated comes up?

You certainly don’t have to go through all of these questions every time you’re co-dependent with a teammate. Pick a few that are relevant and use them to open a dialogue where you can express any concerns you have about how things might get off track.

There you have it, a way to increase your confidence that a teammate will deliver without trusting them blindly.

One caveat.

To be fair, this strategy is ideally suited to a situation where you’re dubious about your colleague’s attention, approach, or accountability, NOT a situation where you have a solid reason to doubt their integrity. A low integrity person might agree upfront and then go back on everything they committed. Hmm… I guess I should write about how to handle a low-integrity colleague. Stay tuned.

Further Reading

Building Trust in Remote and Hybrid Teams

What can you do to accelerate trust on a team?

What do I do if my teammate doesn’t trust me?