WHAT MAKES A PERSON “CREDIBLE”?
Trust is the chain that binds followers to their leaders—and trust only comes when followers perceive their leaders to be credible. Long-time researchers of leadership credibility, Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes wrote, “If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.” They called this the First Law of Leadership.
Important though it may be, credibility is still something that eludes many. The researchers, Posner and Kouzes spent more than 30 years studying how ordinary leaders from all walks of life from CEOs to nursing home administrators strived successfully to build credibility.
They have written best-selling books on leadership credibility such as The Leadership Challenge, making them a household name on the subject.
According to them, communications experts characterise a source of information as “credible” if it possesses elements of reliability, authority or believability. They define credibility along three separate dimensions:
Extensive research has shown that accomplishment in these three areas is arguably the most sought-after characteristic that any leader can have.
Posner and Kouzes ran surveys from year 1987 to 2007 asking employees worldwide what traits they admired in leaders. Respondents listed hundreds of traits which were then sorted and classified into 20 key traits.
The striking result of their study was that four of these traits stood the test of time by being listed as the top sought-after traits by more than 60% of respondents with amazing regularity across the 20 year research period. The pattern was even evident across cultures. The traits correspond with what we have defined earlier as the dimensions of credibility:
1. Honest (trustworthiness)
2. Forward-looking (dynamism)
3. Inspiring (dynamism)
4. Competent (competence)
Dimension #1: Trustworthiness
When one trusts a leader, one is putting the things he or she cares about at stake to follow a worthy cause. The bind of trust gives us hope that the sacrifice of our time, energy, or the things we value will lead to a worthwhile outcome.
Honesty, as noted earlier, has been shown by research to be a crucial trait valued in leaders, and it is a leader’s perceived honesty that determines his or her trustworthiness.
Growing doubt and suspicion about the leader’s ethics can quickly turn the organisation into a silent battlefield. Followers will have little reason to strive for a common cause. The resulting impact on followers’ loyalty is clear from Kouzes’ and Posner’s research.
Disheartened workers only work when superiors are watching and are motivated solely by the money. They may feel like a hypocrite, telling others positive things about the organisation, but feeling otherwise. They are also more likely to leave if the organisation faces problems.
STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVING ON THIS DIMENSION
#1 Building visible connections
What few senior managers acknowledge is that the problem with trustworthiness has more to do with the visibility of honest actions. A series of interviews conducted by Linda Trevino and her colleagues with 40 corporate compliance officers and senior executives from various US firms found that there is a credibility gap between the average worker and senior managers.
Top management perceives their own actions to be honest, ethical and transparent (aka the “fishbowl” perception). The average worker, on the other hand, perceives top management as a “fortress”, where many decisions are made without their knowledge behind an impenetrable bureaucratic barrier.
With most of these top managers barricading themselves at the top most floor of the building, it comes as no surprise that the fishbowl/fortress mismatch exists.
Trustworthy leaders are approachable. The book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It describes honesty and trustworthiness as a trait that can be advertised by practising key principles of relationship building.
As leadership is about relationships, people whom we consider to be trustworthy are people whom we feel we have an intimate connection with.
Leaders perceived to be trustworthy practise the following frequently instead of creating suspicion by distancing themselves from followers:
#2 Do what we say we’ll do
The second crucial step is practising DWWSWD (Do What We Say We’ll Do). As a leader, it is not enough to simply practise what one preaches, but to practise values that are shared by the group. Take for example Juan Gonzalez, an IBM industry solution manager, whose story can be glimpsed from Kouzes and Posner’s book, The Leadership Challenge:
Going beyond the usual amount of social interaction expected for a manager, Juan joins his fellow co-workers, occasionally making phone calls for them and helping solve some of their day-to-day problems. His workers feel valued with their leader working beside them to take some burden off their shoulders.
His real challenge came one Saturday morning when the company applied a product upgrade for a client’s live system which failed to work at a critical moment.
Juan did not wait until the weekdays to settle the problem. Despite enjoying his holidays, Juan gathered his team by calling them up personally.
Even though he could have ordered his best workers to deal with the issue without him (they were after all paid to do the job), Juan arrived first at the scene and spent hours testing the system to figure out solutions and making sure he had done everything he could before calling his teammates.
His willingness to engage with his followers and willingness to make personal sacrifices to uphold high customer service standards impressed his followers and set a norm for them to follow.
“They knew that I was willing to do whatever it took to get this solved… and they picked up the same attitude,” said Juan.
The diligent software engineers were finally rewarded with a note of appreciation and compensatory time-off.
Dimension #2: Dynamism
#1 Having a shared vision
As Kouzes and Posner write, “the domain of leaders is the future”. Dynamism refers to the leader’s ability to look ahead, inspire others, and adapt to changes in the pursuit of shared values. Leaders who are credible care about long-term orientation, not just today’s bottom-line. To pave the way forward, leaders must be good at constructing a shared vision that compels followers to put aside personal differences and work together. Kouzes and Posner provide an exemplary case study of how, Dave, a manager from Bank of America’s Consumer Call Centre, accomplished this:
Dave took charge of the call centre which was underperforming despite having some of the brightest individuals.
It had a key performance score that was 21% lower than the top-performing call centre and 18% lower than the second best call centre. Half of its employees felt that their frustrations went unheard and their opinions undervalued.
Dave came up with a plan. He sent Post-it notes to all his employees and asked them to write down the five adjectives that described their situation. Onerously, the list went:
“demotivated, disorganised, frustrating, lack of appreciation, not enough coaching, etc.”
He then handed them another stack and this time, asked them to list down what they wanted their call center to be like. Listing down the characteristics of their ideal workplace, the notes read:
“amazing results, world class, exemplary, unique, opportunities to learn and grow, true passion for our customers”
Dave then gathered the above statements and compiled them to form their vision and mission. Every month, he holds a “town hall” meeting to measure their accomplishments and reiterate their goal to be a world-class exemplary organisation that is growth-oriented. He also listens to the opinions of employees on how better to realise their shared vision, and incorporated a “Celebrating Heroes” session during meetings to reward and celebrate those who have made crucial contributions towards achieving their vision.
Because the vision was made collectively, and sustained by the leader, the company made it to the top of the game, boosting Dave’s image among his followers as a credible leader who could turn the tables in their favour.
Dimension #3: Competence
#1 Capitalising on small wins
Competence is the leader’s reputation of past successes. People want to follow those who are most likely to lead them to victory.
Usually associated with wisdom and knowledge, competence refers to the leader’s ability to understand the bigger picture of the operations they are placed in charge of – and this expectation becomes particularly true as one moves up the hierarchy to more senior positions.
Managers at the top are expected to be competent in strategic planning and policymaking, and chief executive officers (CEOs) usually have to be competent in competitive marketing to be credible leaders.
Expertise in technical skills is also crucial for a leader to be seen as competent by employees working on the line or in direct contact with customers.
First, the path to building a successful track record is not by tackling the big issues head on, but by accumulating small but successful changes to the organisation. Tempting though it may be, starting with the big issues is usually unwise.
Plans to rid humanity of poverty or provide the silver bullet to ending environmental issues may impress many, but such goals may be too overwhelming to put into practice. Not only will the logistics and effort required be staggering, such goals may also lack the specifics necessary to direct followers to action.
In addition, the looming failure and the inability to advance anywhere near the goal may dampen the spirits of followers leading to procrastination or abandonment of their lofty dreams. This will, in a way, lower the credibility of the leader who is supposed to realise their shared goal.
In The Leadership Challenge, the authors’ interview with Venkat Dokiparthi – who directed a team of Indian software developers – attests to the wonders of working in “short bursts”:
Venkat’s software developers had been working on a difficult project for weeks with no development to report, before finally admitting that it was beyond their capabilities. Venkat was able to efficiently finish the seemingly impossible project by breaking it down into small parts each of which must be delegated and completed within a short span of time.
“I realised that I needed to break down the task and make it simple for them to feel successful,” Venkat said.
By continuously sustaining the team’s morale with one small win after another, Venkat was able to lead the team to the project’s completion and hence, elevate his perceived competence in dealing with complex issues.
#2 Gaining knowledge through outsighting
Many of us are familiar with the term “insight”, which can be interpreted as gaining an intuitive understanding of things. Kouzes and Posner suggest an addition to this, which they call “outsight”–the ability to listen and attend to information beyond our private thoughts.
Great leaders realise that knowledge is not just the mental and intellectual activity going on in our heads, but also the skill in looking out for crucial indications of change.
A survey conducted by IBM on 765 CEOs worldwide found that good ideas can come from anywhere whether from business partners, coworkers, or clients—with about two-thirds of the most significant ideas being contributed by people outside the organisation.
Research by MIT professors Ralph Katz and Tom Allen found that high performance teams have frequent contact with the “outside world”— constantly receiving input from those uninvolved in the project such as stakeholders and customers, compared to low performance teams.
The degree of isolation from outsiders is higher for groups that have been around longer, and the negative impact of their isolation more pronounced. Isolated teams cut themselves from the advantages information sharing such as advancements in technology and marketing opportunities.
Kouzes and Posner interviewed Jacqueline Maartense of Intuit, a small software company, whose finance application, Quicken, managed to outsell Microsoft’s personal finance software five-to-one, soldering its employees’ confidence in their leaders’ plans:
The secret to Quicken’s success despite being outmatched in resources by tech goliath, Microsoft was Intuit’s philosophy of “customer-driven innovation”.
Co-founder, Scott Cook, asserted that members of the Intuit community “from him [Scott] to the janitor” should part-take aggressively in “customer contact activities”.
Every employee listened for calls eight hours after each product launch to ensure early detection and repair of flaws in their software. “Follow-me-home” programmes had technical staff visit customers’ homes and observe their everyday interaction with their applications.
They also sought input in various locations from passers-by at shopping aisles to travelers in an aeroplane flight.
New ideas and suggestions are written down and brought back to the office to improve their products. As Jacqueline put it, “[customer-driven innovation] became part of our very fabric—it was the way we did business.”
A final note
We can finally draw a conclusion that the three dimensions of credibility – trustworthiness, dynamism and competence – significantly improve a leader’s ability to influence followers.
These dimensions should not be treated as separate pathways to win the trust of followers. Rather, they should be seen as intertwining and inseparable ingredients of credibility because deficiency in any one of them, despite sufficient strength in the others will necessarily hamper the effort of gaining followers’ trust.
Untrustworthy leaders, despite being knowledgeable and visionary, would provoke suspicion and distrust among followers.
Honesty and insight may be exemplary characteristics; but failure to cultivate far-sightedness limits one to subordinate roles. Finally, incompetence will drive away disenchanted followers from a sincerely-conceived vision when they see failure at every turn.
The strategies discussed above should set any leaders’ mind to work on how to improve followers’ trust, as only a credible messenger can surpass the hurdle of uncertainty and bring people together for a common cause.
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