In my first job out of college, I shared an office with Ann, who had already been working there 5 years. Although she was a kind and gracious person, I was intimidated. I wanted to prove myself to be competent and capable. During our first week, Ann and I spent time organizing the office and getting to know a little about each other. You can imagine the scene – an experienced employee trying to show the ropes to a new upstart.
The office was housed in a large residence hall on a small university campus. It was late summer before students arrived so it felt cavernous with all 150 rooms empty. She and I were alone working away at filing papers and organizing. At one point, Ann left the office to get a snack. She came back in with a bagel when I noticed a big glop of cream cheese hanging off her top lip. What to do?
In the whole scheme of things, it didn’t matter. No one else was there. If I didn’t say anything, I didn’t risk her being embarrassed in front of somebody else. Why make things awkward between us? So I played it cool. I was a capable, competent professional who isn’t distracted by such mundane things. But Ann kept talking away and that cream cheese blob kept flapping around. I had to say something. So I finally got the nerve, pointed at her lip and said in a low voice that trailed off at the end, “Hey Ann, you’ve got a little…”
I don’t know why I lowered my voice. We were in a giant building completely by ourselves. Absolutely no one could hear us. Maybe I thought I was protecting her dignity. Maybe I was protecting mine. The whole thing was just so awkward.
The moment I made my show of courageous confrontation, Ann threw down the folder in her hand and emphatically told me, “It’s about time! Do you know how long I’ve been trying to balance this thing on my lip? If we’re going to share an office together, you’ve got to tell me that kind of stuff right away.”
What This Story Means
It was a test, one hilarious test. But I failed. What Ann needed from me, and what I eventually understood I needed from her, was honesty in even the smallest things. That’s where trust comes from.
We shared that office together for 4 years, and it was one of the most collaborative and most enjoyable work partnerships I ever had. It probably looked like we had little confrontations every day. “What were you thinking when you did that?” or “Hey, where did that one file go?” But to us, if felt like we never fought at all. Saying what we thought or wondered, and trusting that the other person was doing the same, took the guesswork out of our relationship and freed us up to do our best work.
If you’re going to be on a team, you have to have each other’s backs. If you can’t trust someone for the littlest things, how can you rely on them for the big ones?
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