Credibility 101

Organizations increasingly rely on the ability of their managers to lead change at every level.

AS a manager and leader, how credible are you? Put another way, how much do your employees trust you: your decisions, what you advocate, and even what you say?

Having the trust of your employees may sound like a nice extra--after all, it's their job to follow your directions. But a growing body of evidence suggests that credibility, defined as the level to which employees find you trustworthy and believable, is actually a management essential. Employees who see their managers as credible are more likely to take personal responsibility for their performance and support new initiatives. High levels of management credibility also are associated with strong downstream performance. At the highest levels, strong credibility is one of the traits of leaders successful in safety.

As many organizations rethink their approaches to safety, they are increasingly relying on the ability of their managers to lead change at every level. Credibility in particular is essential to success in this new environment. Without credibility, the tasks of influencing your reports and gaining the support of your own superiors become very tough going. More broadly, not being credible silently erodes confidence in management in general and the willingness of employees to live up to the spirit of organizational objectives.

The Credibility Conundrum
Credibility is often defined as "walking the talk." Yet the reality is often not that simple. For one thing, we tend to overestimate our own credibility because we judge ourselves by our intentions, whereas others judge us by our actions. For instance, we intend to support the company's safety objectives and to follow through on action items, therefore we see ourselves as credible. Yet when we don't do these things because of competing demands or other compelling reasons, others see only that we haven't done what we said we were going to do.

The other reason credibility is so difficult for already busy managers is that it takes work to establish. It requires self-knowledge, boldness, and persistence in demonstrating behaviors that earn the trust of employees. The good news is the results are well worth it. Credibility correlates with perceived stature as a manager and affords that manager more leverage. In addition, these benefits spill over into other performance areas besides safety; credibility is usually attributed to managers as one of their personal attributes, going with them in whatever areas they touch.

Six Basic Rules
So how do you know how much credibility you have, and how do you build more of it? Whether you're a production supervisor, plant manager, or corporate leader, there are six basic rules you can follow right now to boost your credibility factors with peers and reports:

  1. Know yourself. Most managers with credibility problems are unaware of them because they have been blinded by their own good intentions. An honest self-assessment of your actions (and how well they reflect your intentions) can help you establish consistency between what you say and what you do. For extra insight, ask others to give you input on your performance as a manager. This kind of feedback can be a powerful first step in building credibility and in overcoming fears about dealing with certain issues head on.
  2. Be bold. Credible managers practice observable behaviors that demonstrate their commitment to safety. This often means making decisions that go against the status quo. It also means learning behaviors that can be uncomfortable at first. To be credible, you need to show a willingness to admit your mistakes to others, give honest information about safety performance even if it is not well received, ask for ideas on how to improve your own performance, act consistently in any setting, and apply safety standards uniformly.
  3. Set your employees up for success. Even the best managers struggle with setting performance expectations in today's "more with less" environment. Too often, priorities perceived as having higher value or more urgency can cause good employees to push safety activities aside inadvertently. To make safety expectations (and you) credible, you need to set targets with a sufficient understanding of all the demands placed on your employees. Without it, people who already have full workloads may perceive safety objectives as unrealistic or, worse, lip service. Work at developing a clear appreciation of where safety performance fits into strategic objectives, gather information on the state of the organization, and deal realistically and actively with competing priorities. The more information you have, the better you can adjust the way you allocate resources and respond to employee needs.
  4. Be curious. When it comes to fostering credibility, there's no substitute for knowing what you're talking about. However, knowledge comes through experience. Many otherwise credible managers get into trouble with safety by thinking they have to be experts. Because they are afraid to reveal how little they actually know about particulars, they avoid asking for what is often critical information. The reality is that you do not need to have all the answers; as a manager your job is to establish optimal conditions for meeting your company and department targets, including safety. Ask your reports questions about work processes, progress toward targets, or challenges they're facing. You will not only learn what's going on; you will demonstrate that safety activities matter.
  5. Become an advocate. Once you know what needs to happen to support safety objectives (Rule 4), you need to "go to bat" for your employees. The obvious example is the supervisor who speaks to upper management on behalf of an operator who shut down production equipment he deemed unsafe. By advocating for his report, the supervisor demonstrates not just his commitment to safety, but also his concern for the individual. Not all examples of advocating are this dramatic; opportunities are presented every day in helping your reports find solutions, lobbying for the resources they need, and; when necessary, representing them higher up in the organization.
  6. Don't lose it. Finally, it is important to be vigilant about maintaining the credibility you do earn. Many business environments are unforgiving, and credibility that was difficult to foster can be lost very quickly. It is not uncommon to hear a story illustrating how little credibility a manager should be accorded. Yet upon further questioning, the story often turns out to be about an event that happened years ago. Vigilance in showing your credibility gives you leverage; as you gain trust, you earn more benefit of the doubt from reports and peers.

Enjoying the Benefits
Following these rules will help increase your credibility for the long term. While many of these activities take work, you will find the effort worthwhile. As you gain credibility, you will begin to enjoy a stronger presence in the organization, wield more power of influence, and be given more autonomy in your judgment than your less-credible colleagues.

Being a manager who enjoys the benefit of the doubt as a result of earning credibility makes everything else easier. You don't have to be perfect, you can be human and forgiven for your shortcomings and errors. After all, you have now demonstrated integrity in your dealings with others and in improving yourself.

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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