Career Coach: How leaders can boost their credibility with staff

August 19, 2012

Credibility is often considered to be at the foundation of leadership. Regardless of how smart, sophisticated and savvy you might be, if your colleagues or direct reports don’t believe you, then they won’t willingly follow. People have to believe that your word can be trusted — you will do what you say you will do — and that your actions are aligned with your words.

To be seen as credible, you must be honest. Leadership experts and writers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner found people around the globe report honesty as the most important characteristic of “admired leaders.” As they say, “before someone will voluntarily heed your advice, take your direction, accept your guidance, trust your judgment, agree to your recommendations, buy your products, support your ideas and implement your strategies, people expect that you will be honest.”

Credible leaders must also have integrity, adhering to moral and ethical standards. Consistency is key to being seen as credible. Tell the truth, keep confidentialities, apply standards reliably and walk the talk each and every day. Don’t be the leader who promises to do something, but never follows up, or says it is important to treat employees with appreciation, but doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Kouzes and Posner have a quote in one of their books: “You either lead by example or you don’t lead at all.”

As a leader, people look to you to set the example. It seems that some leaders forget this, acting like they live in a bubble where no one is watching. Or perhaps they are so narcissistic that they think the rules don’t apply to them. You can’t wait for others to demonstrate trust and honesty in an organization. As a leader, you have to be the first one to show the actions you want your team to have. Lishun Wu, an executive at the Beijing Infrastructure Investment Co. and a student in an executive MBA course I recently taught in China, said, “I have found that as a leader, if you want your people to have integrity, you have to be honest first.”

One instance of dishonesty or a poor moral lapse can destroy a person’s reputation. It’s not that leaders can’t make mistakes; they are human and will make mistakes. At those times, they need to admit they were wrong, sincerely apologize and take actions to correct the situation. The way in which a person admits their failures, accepts responsibility and acts afterward can greatly affect how others see them in terms of their credibility.

What difference does it make to an organization if the leaders are seen as credible? Researchers have found that when people describe their leaders as credible, they are also more likely to have higher organizational commitment, attachment and pride in their company. They also have a greater sense of ownership with the firm and feel a sense of team spirit. In addition, leaders who are trusted are more likely to have a stronger influence on their constituents.

On the other hand, if employees don’t see their managers as credible, they are more likely to criticize the firm, feel unappreciated, and look for opportunities to leave the organization. Many people that I have coached over the years have told me that they feel best working for a firm that matches their own values. If they don’t find that match, they are likely to leave. One chief financial officer told me that he decided to leave a company because the chief executive wanted him to engage in some unethical finance practices. While he had a very high-paying job with plenty of benefits, he did not want to be part of a deceitful leadership team.

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army or in an office.”

Now if only all of our leaders remembered this.

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