Monday, September 12, 2011

Increasing Your Credibility

Who doesn't want to be credible?  In order to lead others, we need to be seen as trustworthy in their eyes.  The best way to do this is to BE trustworthy.  Unethical leaders always are found out sooner or later.  But the challenge is that even if you are trustworthy by nature, you may not always be seen as such, because perhaps you don't exhibit enough of the behaviors that would encourage others to see you this way.  In this post we'll take a quick look at how to increase your credibility. 

The one take-away lesson from this post is summed up in the following graphic:
Now, for the details:

What does credibility mean?  What does a credible leader look like?  A credible leader:
  • exhibits a strong sense of right and wrong
  • takes a stand for what they believe in
  • honors confidentiality
  • starts or encourages ethical considerations in work issues 
Ask yourself of you fit the description above.  Would others see you in this way?

In order to increase credibility, there are two actions that can be taken.  Think of them as two sides of the credibility "coin."  They are: (1) Building Expertise and (2) Building Trust. 

Building Expertise
In order to be credible you must have a certain level of expertise.  Even a distinguished high court judge may not be a credible source of information on how to install a new muffler on your car.  For that you go to the one with expertise, the mechanic (ideally a trustworthy one, which might be more difficult).  Expertise is broken down into three areas: (1) technical competence, (2) organizational knowledge, and (3) industry knowledge.
First of all, in order to be a credible leader you need to know the technical side.  If you head up a construction company, you need to know how construction works.  If you run a bakery, you need to know how to bake.  This should be an ongoing endeavor: seek to increase the toolbox of knowledge and behaviors that you can then apply in the business to improve it and solve problems every day.

At the second level, organizational, you need to know as much as you can about the dynamics of your company (or, if you are in a huge company, at least your division or department).  This includes knowing the positions and the people behind them, their personalities and proclivities.  At this level you should also have a working understanding of the politics in the company.  The more you understand who the players are, and what the internal forces are that shape the dynamics of the company, the more people will look to you as a source of understanding and sense-making (because remember, leaders help others interpret events and place them in a context). 

At the third level you need to know about the context of industry.  In what world is your company operating?  Are you running an ice-cream store in the middle of a nationwide panic on transfat?  Are you in the oil industry as the government is increasing regulations in response to a spill?  Are you running a sports equipment store in an region that has just introduced lacrosse at the collegiate level?  If you are to be a credible leader, you need to know the external forces that are shaping the options, threats, opportunities, and paths for your company.  If you are disconnected from these, others will have trouble looking at you as credible. 

In short, when others look for a credible leader, they look for someone who knows what he or she is talking about.

Building Trust
The other side of the credibility coin is building trust.  In order to do this, you need to work on your relationships with others, and communicate to them a strong value system. 

Usually we don't wear our values systems on our sleeves, so others are left to guess at what it might be.  One way that we can try to figure out what someone's values are is to look at where they spend their time, money, and energy on.  If we know someone volunteers coaching little league or at a soup kitchen, this tells us something different about them than if they seem to stay late at work even when there is no more work to do, just to avoid going home and being with family.  What could people guess about your value systems based on what they see of us at work?  Where is it obvious you choose to spend our time, energy, and money?  Are you rushing out at the stroke of five o-clock or working until everything is done? Do you take pleasure in crushing another team or company in a competition?  It's these little every day events that others use to piece together their impression of us.

In regards to building relationships, there is much advice out there.  The simplest is this:  take the time to actually listen to others.  Ask real questions.  Listen to the answers.  Be present and available and as authentic as you can.  Relationships will build from there.

In conclusion, if you want to increase your credibility with others, know that they will be asking two questions of you (but not directly asking you- rather looking in your actions and behavior for answers):

1. Do you know what you are talking about?
2. Can you be trusted to use that information for the best outcomes?

If they get the impression from you that yes, you are knowledgeable and yes, you are ethical and trustworthy enough to use that information for the highest and best outcome, then you will be seen as a credible leader.