I had a best friend at work for several years, but about six months ago she left and took another job. I was very sad but after a while started becoming friendly with a newer employee. I’ll call her Rose.
I thought Rose and I were on the same page until last week when someone told me she had heard Rose telling others some things I had told her in confidence. I am shocked and hurt. I think of myself as a good judge of character, so I am really thrown by my own misjudgment.
In the meantime, I still have a regular lunch date scheduled with Rose—who I now know isn’t really a friend. I canceled for this week, claiming I had too much to do because of the holiday, but what should I do going forward?
Dear Feeling Betrayed,
It is so important—and, of course, always tricky—to have BFFs at work. There are a couple of issues in your letter, so I will tease them out and address them individually.
Your need for friendship: You are clearly someone who has a high need for camaraderie and intimacy throughout your daily life, which includes your workday. It would make things easier if you were able to compartmentalize and put aside that need while you are working, but needs are needs. And, to be fair, research shows that people who have a best friend at work tend to be more engaged overall.
As a business leader, I can say with absolute certainty that I want all of my people to bring their whole selves to work, because God knows we all spend so much time there! The key here is finding a way to get your need for a work friend met without putting yourself at risk. Confiding in someone you are not entirely sure is trustworthy is risky, as you have just experienced.
There is no reason you can’t keep up your hunt for a new BFF. You might try to find ways to connect with your old BFF to tide you over until you find your person. The more you take care of yourself in that regard, the less susceptible you will be to making another bad judgment call.
This brings me to your concern about your ability to assess character. Assessing character is notoriously delicate. I know very few people who are truly gifted in that regard. Just when I think I have become really good at it, I make a mistake and feel like I am back at square one. The guiding motto I had for a long time—“I trust people until I see evidence that they can’t be trusted”—is naïve, faulty, and tends to backfire. It set me up to fail. A motto that works better is “I take things slow and build trust over time as I see evidence that a person is trustworthy.” That is more realistic. It could make you a bit guarded, though, which may feel uncomfortable at first.
One of my all time favorite models (from anywhere, not just from Blanchard) is our Trust Model. Essentially, it breaks down the four elements of trust:
- Is this person Able—do they demonstrate competence?
- Is this person Believable—do they act with integrity?
- Is this person Connected—do they show that they care about others?
- Is this person Dependable—do they honor commitments?
As far as I can tell, Rose failed the Trust test on all four counts.
- She was incompetent at keeping your confidence, which is a basic skill of friendship.
- She proved she lacked integrity when she used your confidence to try to build social connection with another person. (Sharing gossip is a known way to build social connection—you can read more about that here.).
- Clearly, Rose does not care enough about you and your request to keep your secrets.
- And finally, she did not honor her commitment to you.
You might think about using these four dimensions when it comes to judging character in the future. It doesn’t mean someone you are otherwise extremely fond of would need to be cut off, but it can inform the ways in which you trust (or don’t).
For example, I have dear friends whom I trust with some things but not others. One in particular would answer a phone call at 2 AM and bail me out of jail, but I wouldn’t trust her with money. Another is brilliant, caring, and lots of fun but can’t keep a secret to save her life, so I don’t share anything I don’t want to be shared. One of my bestest of all best friends overcommits and will always be late. Using the Trust Model to assess what can and can’t be expected from people can really help you navigate the grey areas.
You have two options. You can decide to cut Rose off and simply distance yourself from the relationship with her by canceling future lunches—after a couple of cancelations, she’ll get the message. Or you can have the hard conversation with her. Share that you heard she had broken your confidence, it shocked you, hurt your feelings, and made you question your own judgment. Ask for an apology and give her a chance to apologize. How she responds will tell you everything you need to know about whether or not there is a chance to have a real relationship. If she listens, owns it, and apologizes, maybe you can start back at square one and build something worthwhile. Sometimes an early breach of trust and an earnest attempt to repair can build the strongest relationships of all. And if she isn’t accountable for her indiscretion? Well, you gave her a chance. Her true character will be revealed in that moment.
Even if you are able to start over with Rose, I would recommend not sharing anything you don’t want repeated, at least for awhile. The old adage holds true here: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
In the end, what you really don’t want is an enemy at work. Whether you ghost her or have the frank conversation, you don’t have control over how Rose responds to you. But you can control your own behavior by not gossiping about her and by being kind and respectful in all interactions from here on out. A bumper sticker I saw recently pretty much says it all.
In the future, give things a little more time before you jump in with both feet. I am sure you will either find a new BFF or turn around this situation around. Don’t worry too much about your ability to assess character. People are complicated, unpredictable, and confounding. Every time I think I can’t be surprised by the way people behave, I find myself once again surprised—both for better and for worse. The more I learn about humans (and my entire life is dedicated to understanding them), the less I know. So cut yourself some slack and just be a little more cautious in the future.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.