So far in this series we’ve examined the factors that make you credible during the moment of communication. This article is about all the things you can do over time to strategically build and preserve your credibility over time.
As an organizing principle let’s revisit Aristotle’s definition of credibility as a positive answer to these three questions:
Aristotle’s good sense is measured by listeners’ perceptions of your knowledge (know what) and competence (know how). They’ll believe you when they know you have knowledge that they don’t, or a successful track record of accomplishment. An established record of competence is especially valuable when you face a situation no one has seen before; in this case people will rely heavily on established leaders.
Specialize. Better not to try to be a generalist at least at first. If you’re just starting out, view develop a core strength or expertise, and build from there. While it certainly helps to have specialized training or academic credentials, you can also develop expertise in an area that might be specific to your own company, such as an in-house computer application, or a specific project.
Continuous learning. You get credibility by knowing more about the topic at hand than anyone else in the room, but the world isn’t standing still. Every day generates new information, new research, and people working at least as hard as you are. Stay up to date on your industry and your organization. Think one or two levels above your job.
Maintain a winning record. When you develop a reputation for getting your ideas and projects approved, it builds on itself to the point it can become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Develop the habit of preparing carefully and pressure-testing your ideas before you present them. Ask and answer all possible questions and objections, and then ask and answer the follow-up questions. Prepare in plenty of time so that if you discover holes in your idea you might have time to do something about them. Also, pick your battles—best not to lose if you can help it.
Listeners want to know that you are honest—not only that you’re telling the truth but that you practice what you preach.
Promise and deliver. The best way to develop a reputation for reliability is to be reliable. The standard advice in this area is to “underpromise and overdeliver”, but there are some problems with this approach. First, it’s very easy to overpromise and bite off more than you can chew, either through an eagerness to please, overestimating of your own capabilities, or the planning fallacy. Second, once others catch on to the practice, they will expect more than you promise. It’s best in the long run to make honest, realistic promises and then deliver exactly what you say you will.
Walk the talk. Set the example. It’s all about integrity: don’t preach about thrift and then take a helicopter to the company party (that’s not a made-up example, by the way). There should be no air between your statements and your actions.
Be professional. Character is not only judged by integrity but also by your demeanor and behavior. Keep your temper and composure: remember Howard Dean? He was a credible front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination who harpooned his own campaign with one overly emotional moment in Iowa.
This goes back to the old saw that “people don’t care how much you now until they know how much you care”. The deepest expertise and solid character won’t help if they don’t trust your motives.
Have motives that go beyond pure self-interest. Be seen as a team player, someone who supports the organization, who is willing to give up personal advantage for the good of the group. One study showed that the top skill shared by strong business leaders such as Welch and Gates was the ability to convince others that corporate interests came ahead of all others’ including their own. One of the best ways to be seen as credible is to support something that goes against your own interests.
Outside-in thinking. Cultivate the habit of understanding and connecting your messages to the needs of the audience. Make it about them, not you.
Build goodwill. People tend to believe people they like, so rapport is very useful. In addition, the familiar is more credible than the unfamiliar, so the more people know you, the likelier they are to trust you. Network; make friends; help others; listen.
Finally, be vigilant. Never forget that it takes a long time to build a reputation and a short time to destroy one, which is the topic of the next article in this series.
 The study was cited in The Art of Woo, by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa. I didn’t read the study, but if you want to: Harrison and Clough, “Characteristics of ‘State of the Art’ Leaders: Productive Narcissism versus Emotional Intelligence and Level 5 Capabilities.