5 Subtle Ways Leaders Lose Credibility

Credibility is hard to establish and easy to lose. The sad truth is I’ve seen really good leaders lose the confidence and credibility of their teams by making well-intentioned and innocent mistakes. I’m not talking about the big stuff like lack of follow-through or breaking commitments, but the subtle shifts that undermine all the trust you’re working to build. Don’t fall into these traps.

  1. Word Choice – Leaders use dramatic words to create a vision and gain attention. That’s good. I’m all for colorful language and exciting words. But leaders lose credibility when the words in play are too big or small for the situation at hand. I once worked with a leader whose rally cry of the year was, “we’re in the fight of our lives.” Now, it’s true the competition was fierce, and we needed every brain, heart and hand actively engaged in the struggle. The trouble was many in her audience were literally in the fight of their lives in one way or another: the second bone marrow transplant, a dying sister, a son still in Iraq. I could see these dedicated leaders squirm when she said these words. Sure they knew what she was trying to say, but the words did not inspire the cause. It works the other way too. Words can be too small. If it’s time to be impressed, be impressed. Don’t say, a project was okay when you should have said Wow! 
  2. Too Close, Yet So Far Away – Leaders don’t necessarily need to be able to do the job of the people on their team, but they do need to understand it. I was talking to a sales VP the other day who was in the long-term relationship sales game. He said his boss was asking him to call his prospects every day to follow-up. Having had this VP sell to me in the past, I can’t imagine a worse approach. Our relationship worked because of deep trust and long-term commitment, nagging would have been an immediate turn-off.
  3. Out of Touch -A close cousin to #2, leaders lose credibility when they can’t relate to the personal circumstances of their teams. The other day, I heard a customer service VP on stage talking to a team of call center reps trying to inspire great customer service. She shared, “if you’ve ever been on a Disney Cruise, that’s the kind of service I need you to provide.” These reps were worried about putting food on the table and gas in the car. The sentiment was spot on, but she needed another example.
  4. All About Me– Leaders often take on a celebrity status. People will ask lots of questions about their background, career path, advice. It’s great to share. But leaders lose credibility when they talk about themselves without turning the tables and taking a genuine interest in others. Listen more than you talk. Ask provocative questions. Get to know their background, hopes and dreams. Provide opportunities for others to share.
  5. Strategic Ambiguity – Some strategy and information is secret. If you can’t share, say that. But masking the truth with spin, far-fetched positioning, and other bologna will diminish your credibility fast. People will see through it and wonder what else, you’re not saying.

You’re working too hard to build credibility with your team and organization to throw it away with a sloppy mistake. Pay attention to these potential derailers. Get others involved, sometimes they’re too subtle to see from where you sit.

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


    • Bob, I totally agree. Thanks for adding that. I’ve seen that really become an issue again and again.

    • So agree! I think humility is right at the top of necessary character traits. Admitting when you are wrong, apologizing for errors, and giving credit to others. great point.

  1. I’ve lived through and with every one of them. Hopefully I haven’t been a perpetrator. In one situation we were designing a new org structure and getting ready for a significant downsizing. Unfortunately, some very pointed questions were met with reassurances by the senior leader and put the rest of the leadership team in a tough bind.

    Change starts with awareness…

    • Alli, Thanks for sharing your story. False reassurances are dangerous, and very difficult to forget.

  2. Take a team member’s idea and suggest how to make it better. Once they add their two cents, the team member’s idea is now the leaders idea. It’s an order to do it their way vs. the team members way.

    Leaders, stay out of the way and do less.

    Empower vs. deflate.

    • Steve, Oh that’s a really good subtlety. Thanks so much for adding that.

  3. Maybe related to ‘All About Me’ however worth a mention I think.

    – Leaders who approach things from a point of fear.

    • Dallas, Oh that’s totally worth a mention. In contrast to how some leaders act, fear does not build respect.

  4. Knowing the teams jobs is essential. I was a long time volunteer at this agency in one program. I made sure to handle one of the cases personally for the other program once taking this job. I wanted to know 1st hand what it was like to handle those cases. It accomplished three things: 1. It communicated to my supervisor of that program I cared about her program, 2. I gained practical knowledge and 3. Formed my own story for fundraising.

    • Bill, What a great example. Love it. So true about #3 being able to share your personal story goes a long way in building credibility.

  5. Hi Karin,

    I would add leaders who fail to communicate when followers need to hear from them the most.

    I can use the 2008 recession as an example. When everything was going well, we would often hear about it. When things changed, many companies I know of went silent until the first round of layoffs. It was a very ugly time and I know many people who lost credibility in the leadership of their companies because the silence was worrisome for them.

    • Bill, Great addition. Yes, in times of stress people need more communication not less.

  6. Another subtle way leaders lose credibility is by telling others that their ideas or suggestions have been used before and just won’t work. Instead of looking at the possibility that other factors may have changed, they automatically “nix” the idea and in turn the individual “nixes” the leader. I have seen this over and over again. Keeping an open mind is critical and empowering to those around us.

    Thanks Karin for a great post!

    • Terri, That’s a great addition as well. Not only do they lose credibility, they’re likely to shut down future ideas and brainstorming.

  7. Lack of transparency — not being “real,” reliable, responsive or responsible.

    No one is perfect. A leader that admits his imperfections and missteps will earn the trust of those (s)he is leading more quickly than a leader who does not.

    Failure to “do what you say you will do, when you say you will do it.”

    • Tom, Great adds. Thank you. We can go a long way by admitting our imperfections.

  8. Beforeour boss arrived for a meeting, a consultant talked candidly with a group of us who were working on a database marketing project.

    We told him that things weren’t very far along, and that we needed his help — despite what stories in the trade press had said about our success.

    Then the boss arrived and acted as if we had achieved all of our major goals. Things were peachy. “That’s not what I’ve heard from your staff,” said the consultant.

    Realizing he had been caught in a distortion of the truth, the boss admitted, “Well, I guess maybe our press releases have preceded our performance.”

    My point: You really do have to be honest with your team and your partners if you want their respect. You can try to fool yourself and your competitors but not the people who do the work.

  9. Karin,

    Well said. Credibility is something we build over times and, with a few wrong moves or words, we can destroy our credibility in a flash. This isn’t about being risk averse but about being thoughtful in what we undertake.

    Great points!


    • Jon, So true. I so agree, it’s about being truly thoughtful and understanding the impact we are having.

  10. I sincerely enjoyed reading your comments and feel it wise to suggest “know your audience/client” to suggest the CULTURAL views can be entirely different – especially working with disabled children and how a family wants to pursue intervention — or not. As O T’s it is critical that we understand exactly where our families mind set is and how to help without hurting.

    • Mary Joan, So glad to have you joining the conversation. You really raise an important point here… helping without hurting.

  11. Starting memos with illogical statements like: “hard to establish” does not balance with “even easier to lose.” Credibility is hard to establish, but easy to lose. “even easier” implies that credibility was easy to establish. and the “and” should have been a “but”. I know what you intended, and agree with it, but keep getting caught on the first line.

    Far more seriously — leaders can be bullies, or can be nice; they need to be either respected or liked. That is not the main concern. The main, A, Number 1 concern is simply insight. Do they see how to have the group accomplish its task and organize things to reach the desired result effectively? Some situations require ent moot type consensus building meetings and others require imperial directiveness. Sometimes a mediating strategy is best; sometimes that is the worst approach. Distinguishing important things from unimportant — that is critical and many of the worst people I’ve worked with simply lack that ability.

    • Steve, Great insights and word choice coaching. I’m going to change up the wording now as you suggest. I also agree with you that a vital part of leadership is distinguishing what’s most important and supporting the team in accomplishing that end. Great to have you joining the conversation. I do hope you’ll return.

  12. I’d add taking all the work (maybe not just the credit for the work done) because leaders feel they know better than their subordinates. It’s subtle because some well-intentioned leaders mistake empowering vs giving one-downs a break. Though sometimes helpful, it gives the message that leaders can do without the people who report to them.

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