ASK JASON ANYTHING: How can I work effectively with co-workers I don’t trust?

It’s a writer’s job to know a little bit about everything, and to thoroughly research anything he doesn’t know. ASK JASON ANYTHING is your opportunity to challenge Jason with a question of any kind, whether it’s scientific or religious, financial or social, political, historical. It can be something you already know, or something you’re genuinely curious to learn. You can ask trivia or knowledge or advice, and every Thursday, Jason will do his best to answer.


How can I work effectively with co-workers I don’t trust?

How do I effectively communicate my ideas without the ideas pushed aside? How do I deal with my knowledge being questioned, my directions and suggestions being ignored, and things going on behind my back?

I’m going to dive right in with the blunt response:

You can’t.

If the question had been, “How can I best work with co-workers I don’t trust”, or, “How can I most effectively work with co-workers I don’t trust”, I’d have some wiggle room. I could talk up the potential while downplaying the limitations, but the question was:

“How do I work effectively with co-workers I don’t trust?”

And the short answer is you can’t.

You can work effectively.

You can work with co-workers you don’t trust.

And you can work effectively independent of the offending colleagues. But you can’t work effectively with them. Collaboration at almost any level requires some measure of trust. Truly effective collaboration requires a heaping pile of trust complete with faith icing and inside joke sprinkles.

But if that environment isn’t available to you, here are some alternatives to consider.

You can trust a person’s behavior even when you don’t trust the person.

You can distrust a colleague for entirely good reasons, and still accurately predict his or her behavior. For example, if you know a person who always steals pens, you know not to trust this person with your pen. At least not any of the pens you like. But suppose, for some reason, you had a pen you wanted to get rid of.

Suddenly, you have a perfect resource!

It’s unlikely you’ll ever have dire need to dispose of a pen; the wastebasket just isn’t that far away. I only give this example to demonstrate a level of counter-intuitive thinking you might employ to turn an enemy into an ally (without them even knowing).

If there’s a person who never completes a task, give him tasks you actually don’t want to see completed. This can include causes you’re simply agnostic about, or courses of action you actively oppose. Either way, you’re better off giving these tasks to the person who won’t deliver, while those that matter are assigned elsewhere.

The kind of person who always says the wrong thing is perfect for situations when you actually want to bring something uncomfortable to light.

Abrasive individuals can help you clear a room. Credit-grabbers might claim responsibility for a deliverable before realizing how much went wrong with it. Critics can direct their energies at your opponents just as easily as they can at you.

None of these examples is necessarily a “good” way to operate. But they do demonstrate a willingness to make the best of a bad situation…or bad relationship.

There are people on whom you know you can’t depend. But sometimes you can depend upon their vices in a way their virtues don’t permit.

Working Effectively WITHOUT Said Co-Workers

I said earlier that you can work effectively, independently of the people you distrust. In highly collaborative environments, this is less true. But in many circumstances, going it alone (while not preferred) can still net the desired results in the long run.

My advice here is much the same as I gave in my article on asking for a raise: Make yourself indispensable to the people around you — those you trust as well as those you don’t. With hard work, patience, and perseverance, you can prove to your superiors that you’re a much bigger asset than your problem colleagues. In time, this may develop into opportunities where you’re calling the shots, or at least have been able to move on.

Moving On

Just like asking for a raise, if your work environment is bad enough, sometimes it really is time to look for greener pastures. This may mean looking for another place of employment altogether, though that’s a worst-case scenario.

There are many less drastic versions, which include applying to other departments within your organization, or even just requesting some changes to your current reporting structure. You may not get exactly what you want, but any progress is a move in the right direction.

To use my present employer as an example, I’ve only been there two years, and I’ve already seen examples of:

  • Scientists moving into IT
  • IT professionals moving into Regulatory Affairs
  • Administrative moving into Quality Management
  • Administrative moving into Project Management

That only includes the few examples I know of people who stayed at our location. If I were to include examples of those who found job opportunities in other states and even countries, the range of motion is much wider. Not all companies are this open-minded and career-developing, but keeping your eyes open is always better than assuming you’re stuck.

Even assuming you can’t get transferred, promoted, or restructured, there’s a smaller version of “moving on” you can perform, and that’s simply gravitating towards the people you do trust any time you have to collaborate (even if it means working with those outside your department or organization). If you request someone else to assist you enough times, eventually he or she may consider transferring to your department. Now you’re restructuring from the inside-out instead of the other way around.

Biting the Bullet and Building Trust

I have saved the best for last. This final method is the most effective, period.

It is also the hardest.

The bitter pill to swallow is that trust is mutually built. Sometimes it is worth offering an olive branch for the benefit of mutual gain.

Don’t trust someone? Totally despise his personality, work ethic, and business manner?

Try getting along with him. And I know what you’re thinking:


I’ll understand if you don’t. But sometimes it’s worth trying, because the rewards can be phenomenal. And maybe you’ll never build an ideal relationship of mutual trust and respect, but even a little trust is better than none. Or, if you can work hard enough that they trust you (even if you’re too savvy to return the favor), you can still work more effectively than you can in mutual distrust.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habits 4, 5, and 6 all deal with collaborative working. #5 is crucial here:

Seek first to UNDERSTAND, and THEN to be UNDERSTOOD.

This has a lot to do with being open-minded enough to see someone else’s viewpoint, to offer the benefit of the doubt, to walk a mile in her shoes, before trying to put your own point-of-view out for discussion. You’ll often find that the best way to get someone to open up is to ask (sincerely) what they think. And after they’re done sharing, 99 times in 100, they’ll be more receptive to anything you have to share.

Habit #4 is also important:

Think win/win.

Covey writes that most business transactions or other ventures are approached from the assumption that they must be “win/lose”, that is: One party must profit at the detriment of the other. This sort of thinking still dominates the business world. But it isn’t always this way.

A seller trying to overprice his wares, or a contract padded with unnecessary expenses, or a buyer trying to short-change the seller are examples of win/lose circumstances. But when the pricing is fair, the agreement is sound, and both parties walk away satisfied, that’s an example of win/win. I’m pleased to enjoy a win/win relationship with a very few of my vendors; they “win” by getting our business, but I “win” by timely delivery of necessary projects, quality equipment, and reliable service. My employer “wins” because the price is reasonable and the long term gain is offset by the costs and risks.

If you can think “win/win” with some of your distrusted colleagues, you might find mutual benefit will motivate them to behave profitably. And in the long run, this will build trust.

A Word of Caution

I wouldn’t be a true cynic if I didn’t add the following caveat to the section above:

Don’t get burned twice.

Most people will take an olive branch with a healthy dose of skepticism but some measure of optimism and good will. A very few scumbags will take your olive branch, rip it from your hands, and beat you with it.

My first real girlfriend in high school had a relationship with me that was on-again/off-again so much that I was practically dizzy. After that, I developed a “one breakup” rule for all dating I conducted thereafter:

If a girl were to break up with me once, she had damn sure make certain she wanted to break up with me forever. Which is fine when that was her choice. But for those who were annoyed with me, a quick break up in hopes of later making up was not an option.

For co-workers you currently mistrust but are willing to try to work with, I recommend a “one breakup” rule. This doesn’t mean that your attempt at reconciliation should be half-assed; quite the contrary, it should be whole-hearted and sincere, otherwise it won’t work.

But in the unfortunate event that this person takes advantage of you or stabs you in the back, you and I both know you’ve learned your lesson for good.

This doesn’t mean we can’t love the person as God wants, but it does mean that we don’t give them undo control over any portion of our lives. Just because I love a toddler doesn’t mean I’m going to trust him with the car keys or the stove, and the same can be said of irresponsible adults.

The Bottom Line

In spite of deliberate pontificating, my answer to the original question remains “you can’t”, at least not effectively. But hopefully I have demonstrated a few alternatives to outright defeat.

How worthwhile they are, I leave to your discretion.

Have a question you think will stump Jason? Send it to and check next Thursday to see if your question was answered to your satisfaction.

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  • Broaddus

    How do you know if you ARE the untrustworthy employee? Also as an aside, I just finished up Wizard’s First Rule, and actualy came away from it pretty intrigued and ready for the next book, I know you have said in the past that Goodkind isn’t your cup of tea, and was wondering about your input on the Sword of Truth series…

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