Creating credibility

I remember my father talking about trust – he said “Whether you choose to trust someone or not, you will generally prove yourself right.” Based on this, and some recent reading I have done, my last article was about where to start with trust.

A quick warning about this article

This is an article about creating credibility, so I guess I should start with being trust worthy.

If you know me, you probably realise that no article from me that starts with the words “I remember my father talking about …” will be both short and succinct.

So in the interests of being honest, I want to warn you that this is a long article (2,000 words).

My intention is to bite off a large idea – that of building real and lasting credibility without needing amazing charisma or extraordinary abilities.

Based on my last article

Whatever follows in this article, I think that building trust starts with two things that are under your control. One is to start with yourself and the other is to take the risk of going first. I think these same rules apply to creating credibility.

Start without yourself

If you want others to trust you and find you credible, you need to think about whether you trust yourself and find yourself credible. You need to decide if you are worthy of the trust of others and to ask the, perhaps tough, question of whether you present someone to others that they trust.

This is a tough one, but the good news is that you do not need to master it, just to start reflecting on it and being willing to start showing yourself respect as you grow. Whether you are a bit cocky or a wracked with doubt, you can follow the remaining steps here and you will (I believe) develop more authentic self respect as your credibility is established.

The rule of going first

The other starting point is to believe that trusting others is a good way to go. You can trust yourself, but you also have to show that you are willing to trust others. You can show you are willing to expect high standards of others, but you still need to show you will trust them before they will really be willing to trust you.

In fact, I think there is a general rule about “going first” that applies here.

If you want to be trusted, a good starting point is to demonstrate that you trust others. Doing so will generally create a conversation where the other person feels some agency and also starts to share their trust in return.

The rule also applies to both empowerment and accountability. If you want empowerment or you want others to be accountable, it is generally good for you to be the first one to take the risk. Try being empowered and accountable and try empowering others before you know they will deliver.

In a similar way, if you want to be respected, a good starting point is to show (authentic) respect for others.

A cynical observation

I know that some people seem to be able to bully, harass and belittle others and still get their way, but I think this is more often an illusion rather than a way to create respect.

I believe that it is more about the arrogant person being, already, in a position of power. I do not think they actually earn respect as much as wield power, on the assumption the tide will not turn on them.

But the tide often does turn – pride cometh before the fall, as they say, and the once powerful stagger, it is surprising how quickly and dramatically they seem to fall if they lack the respect, trust and especially, the credibility that is needed to convince others to support them, when they do not wield a big, threatening stick – when they need to turn to others for help rather than being in a position to demand favours from them.

Instead – real respect comes from listening to others and being willing to see that they have strengths and experience. This simple starting point is enough to create a basis for being credible yourself.

Back to the main story

So – respect is earned, partly by showing respect; and respect is closely related to being credible.

I do think though, that there is a subtle difference between respect and credibility. I think both involve extending respect to others and acting in a way that inspires trust, but there are is a difference.

I respect Venus Williams for her tenacity, talent and her track record of winning at tennis; but if Venus Williams attempted to give me advice about how to build a nuclear reactor, or how to configure Jira for a team to use in tracking their work, I would need some convincing before I found her credible in that space.

And so the hard work begins

So how do we establish the credibility that is relevant in convincing teams to trust and rely on you?

Regardless of whether you are a coach, a new product manager or a people leader, I think it is important to credibility and not just to be liked. Doing so will make life easier when you ask others to commit to a goal, or to share their views and listen to yours. Plus, I think, being taken seriously is good for the soul.

One of the things that I loved, when re-reading “The speed of Trust,” was the simple, actionable advice the authors give on creating credibility.

It all starts with us trying to define what “credibility” actually means. Think about what it means to you and then see if the following aligns to what you come up with.

For me this “formula for credibility” helped to break the term down and provide some insight into where to start in building credibility. The formula is represented as:

The formula for credibility. Character plus competence

This is useful for both asking yourself why you trust someone (or not) and why you expect others to find you credible.

If you are dodgy and incompetent, maybe others should not rely on what you say – and if you think that others are dodgy and incompetent, you are probably not going to find them too credible either.

On the other hand if you are “of good character” and “really good at this stuff” then people are likely to feel confident in relying on you.

Let’s break it down further though, because I think there are some specific components of “credibility” that I think can help us come up with actionable insights rather than just a nice definition.

Being of good character

Being of good character is something that I feel is important, even if you or others feel the term sounds dated.

Once again though, we are looking at a topic on which whole books have been written.

For our purposes though, we we can define character as:

Character is a combination of integrity and intent

So you are credible if I perceive you to have integrity and I trust your intentions are something aligned to what I want (or at least accept as just).

But how how will you judge my integrity and the relevance of my intent? Well, the same book helps us again. For our purposes, integrity can be defined as:

Integrity is a mix of being honest and acting in accordance to what you say

So Integrity becomes something concrete that we can demonstrate. We can tell people things that are true and I can act in a way that is “congruent”.

Congruent means that we act in line with what we say, and that our actions are consistent over time rather than seeming arbitrary of random.

On this basis, to boost your own credibility, you should:

  • Say things that can be shown to be true, in a way that people understand you. Check for understanding and answer questions on your intentions,
  • Act in a way that is consistent with your belief in those truths – for example, if I say empowerment is important then I need to actually empower people

We can, however, break things down even further:

I am confident of your intent if I know your motive and agenda

So if we want people to be clear on our intentions, we them to understand both our motives and our current agenda. We want to share both what drives us (or we are motivate to achieve) and what we intend to do in order to succeed or fulfil our motivations (our agenda).

That can, potentially be scary – having no hidden motives or agendas. I guess you could create fake, marketable motives and agendas, but I believe others will see through that and your credibility will suffer as they start to see more cracks.

A bigger risk for me is that I know my motivations and agendas are reasonable in the context that I am operating so I often assume others know what they are. I guess it is lucky that others cannot read our minds, but I have sometimes found I am lacking the ability to persuade others to do sensible things, because they turn out to misunderstand (or not even guess) what my intentions are.

I guess if my agenda was to call others out in public to embarrass them and make myself look good, or my motives were to suck up to management and claim that the team are now doing what managers want, people should doubt my intentions. But more often, I have just failed to share my real intentions, which actually are to help the team improve or to grow the capability of someone I lead.

So I think this is actionable – if you want to build credibility, then explicitly and deliberatively:

  • Communicate what you hope to achieve and why you might be motivated to do that;
  • Communicate what you intend to do and how it might fit your real agenda (which you also share).

But there is one component left – Do I have the competence to come up with good advice and to achieve what I suggested I will do?


Just as everything else was broken down into simple components – competence also has a formula

I come across as competent if I am capable and if I get results

My concern about Venus Williams giving advice on Nuclear reactors is that I do not think she would have the knowledge or skills to understand how to build one. It is not a question of character or intentions, I just don’t have the confidence in her ability to design a reactor. On the other hand if she gave me advice on playing tennis, I would be very confident in her advice.

OK, I guess I don’t have to worry too much about Venus Williams trying to get me to build a nuclear reactor with her, nor even giving me advice on tennis. But I think the same principles apply in coaching.

When you start with a team you want to create trust and establish your credibility. It is easy if people have strong evidence of your capability and have see you deliver results. Without these though, it will be harder.

Rather than just writing this off though – I think there are some important lessons.

To build trust and credibility, we should still start with demonstrating trust and showing respect. We should also share our intentions openly and start to show people that we are true to our word (and that we act in accordance to what we preach). This will get us some momentum.

But then we need to get into the trenches as quickly as possible with people, to test ourselves in the their real world. I struck out the word “the” because we need to show results and capability in the environment that the stakeholders are living in. I think we can only maintain our credibility for so long based on victories outside the organisation or certifications in being a guru.

So as soon as possible, help someone fix something, and then do it again. The “something” can be small or large, easy or hard, but they need to see us help them.

Once we get some results and expose our capability, we will build credibility. This, I believe, is true even if we have limited experience or skill and the results are limited. Once people can baseline what they will get then we can build from there, but if there is no baseline or no direct evidence, people are often not quite sure.

A not on Vulnerability versus Capability and Results

I believe that being vulnerable increases trust and even your credibility. This is probably because it shows honesty and a willingness to share your agenda and motives.

It would be far worse to hedge and dodge and “fake it till you make it” when confronted with challenges than to show vulnerability.

However, I also think that it is better to start showing some results, however small, and hopefully some skill or knowledge, before being too vulnerable, too often. I think seeing great people act vulnerable really increases their credibility, such as if I saw Venus Williams openly discuss a bad game.

However, I personally think that it can be dangerous to appear vulnerable and potentially not competent. I think that might set off some warning signs for people and leave them nervous.

This is not established theory, but I really do think it is good to get some small results and then show vulnerability, and then hopeful more capability and results coming through. I think vulnerability without results can result in it being more difficult to really build credibility when asking others to take risks. I am curious to know if that is just my thinking or if others have a similar/different view.

Putting it all together

So where does that leave us?

Well, Trust is a big topic but we can start establishing trust fairly effectively by showing trust and respect. This does not involve blind trust with rose coloured glasses, but rather a propensity to trust, with a willingness to question and exercise judgement. We need to understand the agenda and motives of others and so we should ask, with honest curiousity, about the intentions others have.

We also need to do a lot of work on ourselves in order to be confident that we are worthy of trust.

But the next step is fairly straightforward if we want to take small continuous steps. In order to provide others with a credible, trustworthy person, we can reflect on and focus on building our credibility.

To do so we can see a basic model of what credibility is:

Credibility – as described above

This means that we should consciously “demonstrate” our credibility to others. While this can sound like a motherhood statement, I believe that it boils down to some basic habits, that are often forgotten in the rush to get work done.

  • Share your intentions with others
  • Act as though your intentions matter
  • Let others know when you expect a result or when you find out it will not be achieved
  • Ask others what their intentions are and share with them when they do not seem to be acting in a way that is congruent with them
  • Be honest and explicitly communicate more than you think is needed .

On the joy of coaching

This way of thinking also means that coaches are in an ideal place to help leaders and teams build their own credibility and help them question each other meaningfully to allow them to trust each other more.

Every time we expose the capability and results of any member of the team, we are helping them build credibility. Every time we help others make their intentions clear to each other, we build shared trust and mutual credibility. Every time we create the safety and forums to be honest with others, we again build trust and credibility.

This is important because if, as coaches, we help people establish their credibility with each other and we thereby increase mutual trust, we improve quality, speed and joy in any kind of work.


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