Wondering if you can trust your co-worker(s)? An important question and an equally tricky one to answer. Why you might ask? What makes this question so challenging to answer? The difficulty is that the answer to this question can come from two different sources. The first and most obvious source for the answer is your co-worker’s personality. Perhaps they are simply not a trustworthy person. He or she see everyone else as a threat to what he or she wants so they lie, cheat, manipulate and back-stab to get what they want. Pretty simple. The second source is a bit less obvious – your work environment. A highly competitive work environment and / or a highly stressful work environment (understaffed, high pressure, “do more with less,” threats of a layoff looming, etc…) can turn the sweetest of colleagues into a manipulative cut-throat competitor virtually overnight. So, in order to answer the question “can I trust my co-worker(s),” we’ve got to take into consideration both personality and context. Consider the following tell-tale signs of distrust at work:

Signs you might not be able to trust your co-worker
  • You don’t believe a word your co-worker says. He / she rarely appears honest, authentic or vulnerable.
  • Your co-worker is all talk and no action.
  • Your co-worker rarely shares critical information with you proactively. If you want it, you have to ask for it.
  • Your co-worker becomes very territorial when you work in his / her “space.”
  • Your co-worker sees you as a threat and does everything he /she can to weaken your credibility.
  • Your co-worker wants your current job and /or you are both competing for the same next job.
  • You are convinced your co-worker has sabotaged you in the past.
Signs you might be working in a low-trust environment (you can’t trust any of your co-workers)
  • Everyone locks their desks / offices when they aren’t around.
  • Food is routinely stolen from the break room.
  • You worry about what others say about you when you turn you back.
  • Praise is a “scarce resource” at work. No one praises each other, ever.
  • No one helps if someone is struggling. It’s an “everyone for his / herself” mantra at work.
  • You are encouraged to compete and beat your co-workers at all costs.
  • Your boss plays favorites.
  • You are in a high pressure sales environment where everyone is competing for the same business.

No surprise if you check off a few of the signs from the lists above. All working environments have some level of distrust. However, if you found yourself nodding in agreement more than not, you might have a serious problem on your hands. I’ll end with this story from a friend of mine. We were having breakfast recently he told me this story:

“There was always a level of distrust at work. We are in a sales business so it is natural that everyone is looking out for their own commissions. At the same time, we had been recognized as a 'Great Place to Work' organization in the past so things were not all bad. As soon as the economy turned and we began to feel the strain on our incomes, it really brought out the worst in everyone. Some people chose not to help others who were struggling. Others became snippy and defensive if anyone got too close to their ‘business’ (leads, customers, etc…). Leads were not getting shared and it was an ‘everybody for him/herself’ environment. People stopped talking all together. What had been a ‘high trust’ environment turned sour quickly. Things are better now but the damage is done. We lost several good people along the way.”

With the strain on all of us today, mistrust is creeping into even the healthiest of organizations. The good news is that in many organizations, trust can improve as fortunes improve. The question for you is twofold:

  1. How long can you hold out?
  2. What can you do to strengthen trust today?

Stay tuned. I’ll be tackling how to build trust with some of the most challenging co-workers in the next post. Help is on the way!

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