Q: I’m an assistant principal in a high school, and I’m in the applicant pool to become a principal. I’ve always had a strong, trusting rapport with a colleague who used to work with me. She was a teacher then, but she’s now an assistant principal at the high school where I hope to be placed. I actually helped her get that job — I gave her a glowing reference, and I meant every word. We worked well together, and I respected her, valued her opinion, and considered her a friend.
I know for a fact she has no interest in being a principal, so I thought nothing of asking her to help me get a foot in the door. She enthusiastically agreed and said she’d love to work with me again. She also made a point of saying she considers me “incredible principal material.” So imagine my surprise when I learned from someone senior to both of us that she wasted no time torpedoing my application. My source showed me evidence in writing. When I mentioned this to one of my current colleagues, she was not surprised. She said that this person has undermined me before. I’m angry, bewildered and upset, and I’m also concerned about my obliviousness.
Not long after I found out the truth, my former colleague made a point of telling me she had supported my application. I didn’t bother confronting her about the lie, because the damage had been done. I know you recommend assuming positive intent, and I always have, but clearly that’s backfired on me here. Going forward, how can I make sure I trust the right people? And how should I handle this particular person? I don’t want anything like this to ever happen again, but I also don’t want to walk around completely paranoid. I’m quick to trust and forgive, and maybe a little naïve — it’s just who I am. This has been a very hurtful wake-up call, however, that I need to fine-tune my “trust radar.” Or at least put some safeguards in place. Your thoughts?
A: Here’s the upside. You’ve been lucky to get this far in life assuming positive intent without experiencing a betrayal. Despite this painful experience, I still maintain that it’s a better way to live. That said, work relationships are different than personal relationships, and it’s a mistake to trust blindly. You need to be careful about what you disclose, and know when it’s time to pull back.
My guess is that you missed some clues. Scroll through a mental reel of your interactions with this colleague. Can you identify anything in retrospect that seems off? Are there any subtle signs you might have missed? Keep in mind that she reported to you. At the time, she stood to lose something if the relationship faltered. Be particularly alert whenever there’s a power imbalance.
I understand how easy it is to miss signals — most people reserve their distrust for when people commit egregious offenses, such as lying to them, spreading gossip, taking credit for their work, sabotaging or humiliating them, or callously disregarding their feelings. No one wants to believe that someone will purposely harm them, especially if they genuinely like and respect the person. Many individuals will ignore warning signs until they’re confronted with undeniable evidence. So how can you approach everyone you work with in a way that ensures you’re neither paranoid nor overly trusting? Here are some guidelines:
- Be cautious as you’re getting to know someone. Keep the relationship professional and collegial. Trust needs to be earned. Don’t overshare. Don’t talk behind anyone’s back.
- Pay attention to your “Spidey sense.” Are there inconsistencies in how they behave with you? Are they effusive when they need something, but less supportive at other times? Are they nice when you’re alone together, but avoidant when others are around? Do they tell you they support an idea, but then complain about it to colleagues? Do they tell conflicting stories to different coworkers? Do they avoid making eye contact with you or suddenly stop talking when you enter a room?
- How do you feel when you’re interacting with them? Are you comfortable? Do you feel insecure, but can’t put your finger on the “why”? Are they a bull in a china shop when it comes to your feelings, or are they sensitive and caring? If they make you (or others) feel bad, take a big step back.
- How do they treat subordinates? Do they keep colleagues’ confidences? Do they bad-mouth other staff members in self-serving or unfair ways? Do they over promise and under deliver? This is all revealing information.
- Do they trust YOU? Be hesitant to trust anyone who doesn’t return that trust. It’s a red flag.
- Do they gaslight you? That’s when someone manipulates you psychologically to make you question your memory or perception of events. That could mean doing any of the following: telling you they’ll do one thing, but later claiming they said no such thing. Or convincing you to take blame for something that’s clearly their wrongdoing. Or, in your case, insisting they gave you an effusive recommendation when they clearly did nothing of the sort.
- Are you ignoring warnings from your peers, colleagues, or perhaps a partner that something seems off with the way this person treats you? You may not have the distance or the desire to see what’s quite obvious to your loved ones. If people in your life sound an alarm, listen up. And if you’re unsure about a situation, “phone a friend.”
- If trust is breached once, it likely will be breached again. Similarly, if someone hurts you once, they’ll probably do it again. As the saying goes, when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Don’t go back for more in an attempt to change the ending. Sometimes a bad ending prevents a worse ending.
- Have a plan in place for dealing with anyone you deem untrustworthy. How will you respond if they ask for information about a colleague, or pry into your personal life or professional plans? Don’t disclose anything that could be used against you. You could come up with a simple statement, such as, “I’d rather keep that private.”
- Think about the positive relationships in your life. What sets them apart? By identifying what constitutes a trusting relationship, you’ll get better at spotting untrustworthy ones. Remember that you’re worthy of professional respect, honesty, and kindness, and anyone who undermines you or makes you feel terrible doesn’t deserve your support.
When you engage with disingenuous people, you waste time and mental energy that could be better spent on other pursuits. Don’t interact with this former colleague unless it’s necessary. That doesn’t mean you have to hold a grudge against her forever. You can choose to forgive her for your own well-being. Learn from the experience and then let it go. It’s also OK to be sad. It’s disappointing when someone deceives you. She may not know it, but it’s a loss for her, too. She no longer has the trust or affection of a colleague who sincerely liked and respected her and valued her opinion.
If she wants to reach out and try to regain your trust, that’s on her. She’ll need to take responsibility for hurting you personally and professionally. The same part of me that likes to assume positive intent hopes she’ll summon the decency and courage to make it right. In the meantime, I wouldn’t reach out to her. In fact, I’d put up some firm, healthy boundaries.
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