Leaders have a trust issue. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 60% of people believe that the average person is just as credible a source of information about a company as a technical or academic expert—and far more credible than a CEO (37%) or government official (29%).
In this atmosphere of distrust, leaders have a big job to build credibility and trust. When it comes to communication, one major problem is a lack of authenticity and truth-telling, says leadership communication expert Terry Pearce, author of Leading Out Loud: A Guide for Engaging Others in Creating the Future.
When it comes to habits that can ding your credibility, there are some common ones that many people either may not realize they’re doing—or may have even been trained to do, he says. Here are five credibility-busters you should drop if you want a better shot at building trust.
The Fake Apology
One way to damage your credibility is to offer a “non-apology apology” when you owe an authentic one, says Michael Maslansky, CEO of Maslansky + Partners and coauthor of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics. So, instead of, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” which puts the ownership of the issue on the other party, a sincere and effective apology acknowledges and accepts responsibility for a situation or transgression.
“You can often tell the difference based on whether there is an acceptance of responsibility—an authentic understanding of why the person feels or, the group of people feel like they were wronged,” Maslansky explains. In addition, in corporate context, the apology includes an agreement or a statement about what the organization or the individual is going to do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again or to address the wrong.
The Blame Game
“Finger-pointing” or shifting blame onto someone else also damages people’s faith in your word and authenticity, says communication coach Kate Bennis. While sometimes situations require consequences, such as for carelessness or bad actions, publicly making someone else a scapegoat is just going to make people wonder about how much you can be trusted.
“In order to have credibility, leaders must immediately take full responsibility for their behaviors and actions of all of those in the organization without acting clueless, finger-pointing, or denying,” she says.
The Non-Denial Denial
Playing games with words, such as the “non-denial denial” is a big credibility-buster, Maslansky says. Today’s audiences are sophisticated, and aren’t tricked when leaders dance around a subject. When you appear to deny something but, upon closer inspection, the actual meaning of what you said is ambiguous, people begin to wonder if you’re being honest with them overall, he says.
A better way to handle tough questions or information is to be truthful and, if possible, try to emphasize the positive or a solution, he says. So, instead of saying, “We have no intention of making changes,” when it’s clear that a reorganization or other changes may be on the horizon, be more forthright. You may say that you’re exploring options and give a concrete timeline when employees can expect more answers.
“Your best strategy is to get ahead of it rather than trying to go through the process that we’ve all seen happen before, like a slow motion car crash, where there is the non-denial, denial. Then there’s the revelation, then there is the belated apology and the sense of remorse. Then there is the departure from the scene while you hope that everybody forgets what happened,” Maslansky says.
The Agenda-Driven Message
However, when you’re being straight with your audience, don’t mistake that for an opportunity to push your agenda, Maslansky says. When you put forth an assertion that is clearly self-serving with no data to back it up, your audience is going to see through it.
So, instead of saying that there might be a reorganization, but no one needs to worry about losing their jobs, which is counter-intuitive and probably false, recognize that changes need to be made, give context for the issue and the action being taken (e.g., sales have fallen off, so the company is looking at a combination of cost-cutting and organizational changes), and information on when they can expect to hear more gives them a sense that you’re sharing all that you can, he says.
When someone asks you a difficult question and you answer by evading the question, “it sticks out like a sore thumb,” Pearce says. A response that ignores the question or acknowledges, “That’s a good question, but I think the more important point is,” doesn’t fool anyone and leaves the questioning party feeling duped. It happens often in question-and-answer sessions, Pearce says.
“The person never does get satisfied and, of course, they leave thinking that their question was avoided and the damage is done. But the leader rarely thinks about that. They think about how clever they were to get around it,” he says.
Overall, most of these situations can be solved by leaders providing context and being as honest as possible, Pearce says. He likens leaders to the “captain of the ship.” Standing on the deck with a clearer view of the horizon than others, they can communicate what’s coming with more authority and vision than those who are below deck and relying on them. When they ignore context and dismiss their responsibility to be truthful, their credibility is at risk.