October 7, 2016
Credibility results from who we are and what we do—a balance of character and competence. It takes time to earn and only an instant to destroy. So it’s crucial to firmly establish yourself as a credible leader and boss.
We hear about “walking the talk,” but the talk itself is still important. The language choices we make have a huge impact on how we come across to others and how we develop a reputation for honesty and sincerity.
We can take a significant step toward creating and maintaining our own credibility by what Pat MacMillan, CEO of Triaxia Partners, Inc. calls “mastering the art of straight talk.” A consultant to top executives in a number of Fortune 500 companies, MacMillan advocates “straightforward communication that is open and honest, timely and accurate.”
Straight talk doesn’t always come naturally. Some common pitfalls can sabotage your influence, undermine your integrity, and tarnish your standing as a credible leader. Here’s how to avoid them:
Resist the temptation to stretch the truth. Were you on hold for 15 minutes or was it more like 5? Did a VP really “lose it” or merely express active concern about some aspects of your marketing plan? When your flair for the dramatic leads you to overstate, you may cause people to weigh your words carefully.
If you earn a reputation for hyperbole, when you actually deliver unembellished information, people will subtract a few degrees from anything you say, convinced you are inflating the facts. Your tendency to amplify a story may affect how colleagues, employees, and senior executives perceive you, which damages your effectiveness. An urgent situation with a key client, for example, may not get the reaction and attention it deserves. Or your explanation for why your team’s project is delayed may be seen as a creative excuse rather than a legitimate reason.
Avoid excessively using jargon and buzzwords. In a jargon-filled world, a stock market crash becomes an “unplanned equity retreat.” Companies don’t fire people, but go through “workforce adjustments.”
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, authors of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, refer to the “mystique of complexity,” which encourages businesspeople to impress others with complex language and convoluted ideas. As a result, we scramble to create an aura of competence by using incomprehensible jargon. The practice, however, confuses people and inhibits action.
It’s easy to mimic all those around you who are trying to make the ordinary sound extraordinary or to shift responsibility. Don’t be satisfied with accepting statements with murky meanings from others. And avoid sending such messages yourself, in order to build your reputation as a credible leader.
Make only promises you intend to keep. Saying “no” or “I can’t” can be difficult, but getting labeled as unreliable is worse. Be careful the next time you say “I’ll see what I can do,” or “I’ll get back to you.” Once people get the message that you don’t mean to do what you say, it will take a major effort to reconstruct your credibility.
Admit mistakes. Admitting a mistake won’t make you appear weak or increase your vulnerability. In fact, it renders you more approachable and sincere. Particularly as a leader, you can create a positive climate for growth by sharing some of your own mistakes and what you’ve learned. Admitting that you made a flawed decision can earn you the respect of others, make them more willing to accept constructive criticism, and give you credit when you deserve it.
In a world of faux, being a person of credibility and substance is a critical asset. Establishing and maintaining a reputation for honesty and consistency takes effort and vigilance. But the rewards that come from being seen as a credible leader are significant and long term—for both you and those you lead.
Adapted from The Etiquette Edge: Modern Manners for Business Success by Beverly Langford. © 2005, 2016 Beverly Y. Langford, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association.