Whether we want to or not, many of us find ourselves doing business with people we don't want to work with. Self-interest is a very powerful motivator—it can cause people to do amazing things as well as cause them to act unethically, dishonestly or just plain old selfishly. To navigate those tricky waters and come out ahead, you need a game plan for how to go about doing business with people you don't trust, and still feel good about it.
1. Realize and accept self-interest is part of business. I’ve often wondered if Mother Teresa would have told a lie if it meant furthering her goal of helping the less fortunate—something like keeping an orphanage open or feeding more sick children. Who am I to judge? Once you realize that everyone is operating on some level of self-interest, you’re better prepared to handle those who may cross the line. Letting go of the judgment when colleagues are self-interested can free you to accomplish big things, things you might not be able to accomplish otherwise. If your conscience is clear, you don’t necessarily need to worry about everyone else’s.
2. Look for behavior patterns. We’re creatures of habit, every one of us, and when we’re under stress or excited, we’re even more likely to fall back on the habits and patterns that feel comfortable. If you observe people, whether they’re dishonest or not, you’ll see the patterns in their behavior, ways they’ve reacted in the past. And though we may try to deny it, past behavior is the single most reliable predictor of future behavior.
3. Take small risks. When you’re beginning a new business relationship and you’re uncertain how trustworthy your new associate is, it makes sense to limit your exposure by starting small. It’s much better to find out that someone will steal by losing $50 than by losing $5,000. Mitigate your loss by testing your relationship with baby steps. Establish a trial period for an employee or a paid sample from a new contractor to test your relationship and their honesty and work ethic.
4. Use guardrails. In addition to starting small, it’s essential that you implement a stop-loss plan in case you get burned. The idea is to minimize your loss in the event of a problem. Say you’ve been smart and started small, and you’re now ready to embark on a bigger, long-term project. You should set regular check-in dates to evaluate progress and note specific triggers that will cause you to pull the plug if things are going badly.
5. Get the facts and put them on the table. When things do go wrong, it’s essential that you amass your evidence in order to prevent a dishonest person from refuting your claims and denying that there’s a problem. Think like a lawyer and present your evidence. It’s far easier to renegotiate your agreement or get your project back on track when you have facts and figures on your side, and you’ll be able to manage the relationship without unnecessary drama.
If all else fails, and you find that you’re unable to get what you need because of a person’s dishonesty, you may be better off disengaging and moving on to deal with a more honest person. If you can’t manage the relationship, then cut your losses and choose more carefully next time. Sometimes being honest and trustworthy is enough to inspire those qualities in others; sometimes you have to move on to working with people who are inherently honest on their own.
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