workplace psychology

An Upside to Distrusting the Jerks You Work With

Man looking over partition in office
Photo: Anthony Harvie/Getty Images

Many bad things in life have a secret upside, and here is the silver lining to working with people you distrust: At least you’ll be better at your job? This is the conclusion, anyway, of some recent research published in the journal Group Decision and Negotiationsummarized today in Harvard Business Review. 

Some of the students in the study were assigned a “non-routine” assignment — something that took the things they’d learned in class and applied them to brand-new contexts, as opposed to problems similar to ones they’d worked on before. But before they got started, some people were shown this ominous little note: “A team member in your group has been assigned to purposely slow you down and lead the group to the wrong answer. This team member has been instructed not to admit this role. You will be asked later to identify who in your group filled this role.”

In the end, the people who’d been shown the weird message meant to stir up distrust ended up performing better than the ones who hadn’t been given that note. This makes a certain amount of sense: If you don’t totally trust the people you’re working with, you’ll likely have a more critical eye and might be more likely to double and triple check your work. 

On the other hand — obviously — to a heightened degree, feeling like you can’t trust your colleagues becomes a problem, and so the researchers are not suggesting that anyone should purposefully attempt to sabotage their relationships at work. A less crazy application of this research, then, might be to pair up with someone new when working on a particularly big project. Things like this “could foster some distrust, thereby sparking critical thinking, but without fostering harmful tension between any two individual group members,” writer Walter Frick explains. A teensy dose of antagonism never hurt anyone

An Upside to Distrusting the Jerks You Work With