So far in this series we’ve focused on the positive steps you can take to build credibility, but credibility can be a very fragile asset, which can blow up in an instant or lose power over time if you don’t guard it carefully. There are probably an unlimited number of ways to ruin your credibility, but here are some of the most common. Blow-outs are the instant credibility destroyers; leaks take a long time.
When you’re in a hole, keep digging. The conundrum of credibility is that you want to be known as the person who is always right and has all the answers, but that can also get you into trouble. You will be wrong sometimes. It’s inevitable but survivable. As Richard Nixon showed us, it’s often not the initial mistake that brings them down, it’s the cover-up attempt. You have to know when to fold ‘em. It’s OK to fake confidence but never to fake knowledge.
Pretend to be someone you’re not. Joseph Ellis is a respected historian who has written some fine books on American history—none of which I will buy since I found out that he lied for years, claiming in his classes that he had served as a platoon leader in Vietnam. Jonah Lehrer, who was one of my favorite writers, committed a related blow-out: making stuff up, by fabricating some Bob Dylan quotes to spice up his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Get complacent. This happens a lot with people as they rise through the ranks and benefit from the Matthew Effect. Those who have earned a reputation for credibility get questioned less, and since we all have more important uses for our time, we may tend to cut corners on preparation and fact-checking. It’s also easy to stop learning…
Have more than two drinks at the office Christmas party. That’s just a representative example to make the point that everything you do can affect your credibility, even if it has no immediate relevance to the issue at hand. David Petraeus found out about that in 2012. Note: Eisenhower never had that problem, which shows that it’s just about impossible to keep a secret for very long nowadays.
Don’t eat your own dog food. That’s just a colloquial way of saying you should practice what you preach. I’ve had competitors of mine who sell training related to sales call planning but haven’t been able to produce their own call plan when challenged by the prospect.
Passion. A lot of people will disagree with me on this one. It’s all the rage to talk about passion as being the most important factor in persuasion and success in general. The problem is that in a business environment, passion is viewed with suspicion. They will automatically question you to make sure your passion is based on more than emotion. Passion is also one-sided, so it can make it easy for you to ignore others’ points of view, and business audiences appreciate speakers who show they have seen both sides of a question.
Get the minor things wrong. Small mistakes are easy to make because when we’re pressed for time we might only fact-check the important bits. But getting a small item wrong is like leaving a loose thread on a sweater—it can unravel your entire credibility. I just read a book which has good sense and excellent stories, but early in the book it had one glaring error in a very minor story about Churchill, and that unfortunately tainted my perception of all the others. Even typos can sap your credibility, if you have enough of them.
Verbal leaks. It seems unfair that you have to worry about all these threats to your credibility and also have to ensure that you don’t have too many “ums”, “likes” and “you knows”, but that’s an unfortunate fact. Don’t obsess about zero tolerance, because that’s not realistic or even desirable in normal conversation, but be aware if it gets to be too much.