A FBI agent showed me how to read my colleagues
Want to know if you can trust someone? The subtle art of behavioural analysis holds the key to more effective working relationships
“Wait. I don’t remember telling you the name of my hometown,” I said with an eyebrow cocked.
“No, but I’m an intel analyst. So I know.”
Truth be told, I was surprised the conversation hadn’t included more moments like this. I’m sitting in a tavern a few klicks down the road from the FBI’s training academy in Quantico, VA. With me are retired special agent Robin Dreeke, who ran counterintelligence operations at the Bureau from 1997 to 2018, his former supervisor Jesse, and Joe the intelligence analyst. We’re about two beers in and it’s been… interesting.
It’s all about building relationships, according to agent Dreeke. “If you manipulate, you’ll never earn trust. I am 100 percent anti-deception because you can’t have trust without open, honest communication and transparency.”
Sound familiar? It should. As any seasoned office denizen knows, the most effective and enjoyable relationships with coworkers are those built on trust and a sense of shared interest. Moreover, there’s no sense forcing someone to work with you: they’ll be unreliable at best, and may even sabotage the project. The trick is identifying the people who are naturally inclined to collaborate – and winning over those who aren’t.
“Finding good collaborators is as much about how you behave as it is about reading other people.
That’s why Dreeke wrote Sizing People Up: a Veteran FBI Agent’s User Manual for Behaviour Prediction, where he lays out his framework for assessing someone’s potential as a collaborator based on observed patterns of behaviour.
The average reader’s working environment is rather less fraught than Dreeke’s was, but he takes that into account with example scenarios that feel more like The Office than The Americans, alongside some riveting tales from his counterintelligence days.
Hungry for a deeper dive – and a bit awestruck, because holy crap this guy ran real-life espionage – I asked agent Dreeke to spend a few hours with me teasing apart some of the nuances. To my surprise, he agreed. To my even greater surprise, Jesse and Joe (not their real names, btw) came along for the ride. Ensconced in a corner booth in the same Virginia tavern where Dreeke often met with his assets, we talked about how to read a coworker’s tells, how to turn negatives into positives, and the importance of remembering that another person’s behaviour is almost never about you.
Why it’s okay to trust people you don’t like
Although healthy relationships are based on trust, it’s a mistake to think of trust purely in moral terms. When it comes to sizing people up, trust is less about integrity and more about predictability. Fortunately, predicting behaviour boils down to one truth: people will predictably act in their own self-interest. The real work, and the real payoff, is in discovering what the other person perceives their interests to be. “The more I focus on understanding your priorities, the more I know what you’re going to do,” Dreeke says, “because you’ll act in terms of those priorities.”
Thinking of trust as predictability also allows us to separate our feelings about a person from our level of trust in them. “Just because I like you doesn’t mean I can trust you,” he reminds me. Setting your feelings aside also means you might trust someone even if you don’t like them.
That said, there’s always a chance someone will betray your trust, either on purpose or by accident. Dreeke and his cadre borrowed a common Russian phrase as their mantra: “Doveryai, no proveryai” (Trust, but verify). Instead of putting trust on auto-pilot, check up on what the other person has said from time to time.
THINK LIKE A SPYMASTER
Don’t let your personal feelings about someone blind you to their trustworthiness (or lack thereof).
Recognising a good collaborator’s tells
When Dreeke explained why a person’s trustworthiness has nothing to do with their likeability or virtue, it felt like a trapdoor has been opened under my feet. Those are humanity’s go-to signs, after all! But there’s hope. Through hard-learned lessons early in his career, plus Jesse’s mentorship, he developed a more impartial framework for recognising trustworthy partners.
“What I try to do is overwhelm subjectivity with so many data points that after a while, the data makes it objective, or at least more thoughtful,” he tells me. “The point is really to set reasonable expectations for working relationships.”
At a high level, you’re looking for signs the other person will be transparent with you and follow through on agreements without you having to babysit them. “To me, the most important sign is emotional stability,” Dreeke says. “Is this person thoughtful and cognisant of what they do?” People who are emotionally stable stay rational when they’re surrounded by fear or fanaticism – they don’t let their own emotions get hijacked. They tend to be flexible as well, seeing change as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Dreeke also places a high value on competence. Whether you can rely on a person isn’t just a matter of their intent to deliver on their promises, but whether they actually can. Here again, it’s important not to assume they’re capable just because you like them. Try to find people who can accept difficult tasks and get up to speed quickly, but are also self-aware (and self-assured) enough to be open about their shortcomings.
Finally, look for signs that they’re keen to help you be successful. Do they talk about a common goal you’re working toward? Do they anticipate having a long-term relationship with you? Do they offer help even when you don’t ask for it and get genuinely excited when you score a win? These are all positive tells for being invested in their relationship with you.
THINK LIKE A SPYMASTER
Look for people who show signs of emotional stability, competence, and investment in your shared success.
Knowing when to run the other way
Recognising people who won’t make good collaborators is usually easy. They talk trash behind people’s backs, they’re incompetent, they’re clearly out for themselves and nobody else. But some of the negative tells are less obvious.
We’ve all been out with friends when someone pulls out their phone and starts texting at the table. Although it’s rude, we give them a pass because hey: they’re our friend. But in the context of work, someone checking their phone while in a conversation with you is a clear sign they don’t value your ideas.
Whether they don’t think you can contribute to their success or simply don’t like you, they probably won’t contribute to your success. If they also fail to mention you when talking about the future, that’s an even clearer signal.
Catastrophising is another negative tell. Whereas most people can absorb a little adversity and face it head-on, people who treat every problem as if it’s the end of the world spread fear. And fear has a way of turning perceived catastrophes into self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s tough to work effectively in that kind of environment.
Last, be wary of people who love planning projects but lose enthusiasm when it’s time to move into execution mode. Remember that reliability is a combination of competence and diligence. So unless this person is in a strictly project management role, a strong preference for planning over action signals either a limited attention span, outright laziness, a lack of confidence in their own skills, or some combination thereof.
THINK LIKE A SPYMASTER
The people who panic, show disinterest in you, or disappear after the oh-so-exciting “idea” phase of a project are the people you’re better off without.
What to do if you’re stuck with them
We don’t always get the luxury of choosing who we work with. When you find yourself on a team with someone who exhibits these negative tells, Dreeke stresses the importance of staying as calm and objective as possible, even if their behavior toward you feels personal. “Realize they’re rarely out to get you. They’re just being who they are, and who they are has a lot of insecurities. Insecurity makes negative behaviors flare up, makes them judge you so they feel better about themselves,” he says.
Once you view it this way, you can go back to the idea of learning about their priorities and using that information to turn the relationship around. The key is to come across as being curious about the other person – not judgemental. If they sense judgment from you, they’ll shut down or lash out more severely.
It’s all in the language you use. “Why did you do that?” is a very judgemental question. By contrast, “Can you help me understand the reasons for… ?” or “What is stopping you from…?” validates and acknowledges, without judging.
Let’s say someone has left you out of a decision. First, assume it’s not personal. “99 percent of the time, it’s just an oversight because of circumstances,” Dreeke claims. Still, this is the perfect time to apply the trust-but-verify mantra.
Ask non-judgemental discovery questions that will reveal their perspective. If you discover they left you out because they wanted all the credit if the decision proved successful, agreeing on roles and responsibilities for the project might help. By establishing clear areas of ownership, you’ll give them confidence that they’ll get their time in the spotlight. (Not to mention reduce the likelihood you’ll duplicate each other’s efforts or let tasks slip through the cracks.)
Appealing to someone’s ego is another useful tactic, particularly when you’re leading the project but you’re not their manager. For example, ask them to teach you about the piece they’re responsible for if they’re better at it than you are.
“You’ve sought their thoughts and opinions with ‘How do I do this?’”, says Dreeke, “and validated how awesome they are at their job.” Chances are, you’ll cultivate a more willing collaborator and a new skill.
THINK LIKE A SPYMASTER
Non-judgmental validation goes a long way toward turning a toxic relationship around.
Positive behaviours keep good collaborators coming back
By the end of the afternoon, my notepad was full-to-overflowing and so was my brain. What stood out, though, was the idea that finding good collaborators is as much about how you behave as it is about sizing up other people.
“You have to demonstrate value and affiliation with others, and make it about them,” Dreeke says. “You suppress your own ego and seek their opinions. You acknowledge their concerns and priorities. You validate them without judging them. And you give them choices.” In other words, you make it about the other person.
Just like you look for signs someone is invested in your success, make sure your success reflects positively on others. Publicly thank people for their contributions. Talk to them about their goals and whether there might be more opportunities to work together. If there are, they’ll jump at the chance.
Even if your work together was a one-off, find ways to be a resource for them in the future. Offer to connect them with people in your network or help them learn a new skill. They’ll be eager to show you the same generosity because now they think of you as a long-term ally. When you focus on the person, rather than on what they can do for you, they often lead you to hidden gems you weren’t even looking for.
In between bites of a truly delicious Ruben sandwich, I confessed to agent Dreeke that the oppressive office politics and standoffish managers that appear in many of his examples in the book felt unfamiliar – even outlandish – to me. For the most part, I’ve managed to avoid that (owing more to good fortune than to being methodical about it).
“I don’t see a lot of it either,” he replied. “When you focus on building healthy relationships, you rarely get confronted with anything unhealthy. So the more you live that way, and don’t accept anything other than that in your life, the more it perpetuates itself.”
This article is written by Sarah Goff-Dupont and was first published on Atlassian.