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The 3 Most Common Ways Leaders Lose Credibility

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It’s a bit distressing that the three most common ways leaders lose credibility are so easy to avoid. And yet, it’s not difficult to see how all of us can fall into these traps at times. The question is, when you fall into one of these traps, can you catch it early enough to mitigate the damage? Avoid these 3 behaviours and you will have have effectively bought an insurance policy that covers 65% of your risk. For Free. Not a tough call. 

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An Informal Poll

In every leadership development program I facilitate, I always ask participants which behaviours are most detrimental to a leader’s credibility. There are 3 responses that are so common, they are difficult to ignore. While everyone uses different language, my rough estimate is that 60-70% of the responses fit into one of the 3 categories below. These behaviours erode credibility faster than a frothy sea erodes a melting glacier.

Credibility is really about trust. We all know how difficult trust is to gain and how easy it is to lose. While there are more complete definitions of trust, quite simply trustworthy people don’t do untrustworthy things.

What Happens When A Leader Isn’t Trusted?

As a leader, if you don’t have trust, you have very little. I’ve seen several instances where entire teams of people go from active promoters of their leader to active detractors when any combination of these 3 behaviours are evident. You don’t have to be a particularly intelligent person to recognize just how much can be accomplished with a team full of promoters and how difficult it is to get anything done with a team of detractors.

1 – Words and Actions Don’t Align

Let’s say for instance your leader rallies the troops to explain how important it is for everyone to focus on lowering expenses. The following week you’re flying together to an important client meeting and he’s at the front of the plane enjoying a hot meal and a beer while your knees are smashed against the seat in front of you. You’d have to question how important cost-cutting really was to him, would you not? And in the process, you would likely wonder how he became so special that the rules didn’t apply to him.

2 – Credit Hoarding

Assume you get an awesome idea for a new initiative that you believe could increase revenue by up to 10% with very little added cost. Excited about your idea, you book a meeting with your boss the next day and enthusiastically explain your epiphany, which, to your disappointment is met with only a lukewarm response. A month later you overhear your leader talking excitedly to another VP about an idea she has for a project that could increase revenue conservatively by 10% with no added cost and you realize she’s explaining your idea. Would you ever trust her again?

3 – Lack of Empathy

You’re having a particularly rough first quarter of the year. A competitor has launched a new product which is siphoning sales from your territory. Your sales are only at 60% of target and you realize you need to quickly bring up your numbers if you’re going to make bonus for the year. Feeling a little dejected, you decide to ask your boss for some guidance on how to turn things around. As you explain your conundrum, he picks up his phone, reads a text, then sighs and proceeds to pluck out an email. When you ask for his ideas on how to stop the bleeding he impatiently replies “How the hell should I know? You’re the salesperson. Figure it out”. What are the chances you would ask his advice ever again? And how would you feel if he spoke at the next sales meeting about how much he cares about his team?

These Stories are NOT Hypothetical

Now for the interesting part. These are all true stories that I have heard in just a few of the leadership development programs I have facilitated over the past few months. These things actually happen. When they do, the trust that evaporates forever is difficult to measure. But it is significant enough to have a material impact on the motivation and performance of the individuals affected. And my bet is that these stories or similar versions thereof are being experienced by other members of the same teams.

Please do me a quick favour if you would. Scan the stories above and estimate the lost productivity in percentage terms of the divisions run by these leaders…

All of a sudden you can start to see real dollars evaporating from these businesses like steam from a hot spring in winter. This is why leadership is so incredibly important and why leaders have a deep responsibility to hold themselves to a consistently high standard of conduct. At the risk of oversimplifying, if trust really is about avoiding untrustworthy actions, these 3 should have blinking “Caution” signs next to them.

Time to Peek in the Mirror?

Interestingly, none of these behaviours are particularly difficult to avoid, and yet they are all too common. Now these are extreme examples, but if your engagement levels are declining and productivity is beginning to suffer, it’s worth a look in the mirror. Are there any possible reasons your team members might be losing trust in you?  Perhaps it might be time to take your own (general) poll…And listen closely to their answers. If anything that is mentioned resembles any of your past behaviours, you may have some damage control to do. At this point, that’s all there really is to do.

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Brent C. Wagner