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Building Credibility in four Easy Steps

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 17/11/2015 Great Work Cultures

In the old world of hierarchical organizational structures, the "seniority" of the role pretty much decided how much "power" the roleholder commanded. The notion of power was not just metaphorical, it was even literal! The power of the person often dictated how far their ideas - howsomuch dumb they might be - would fly, and how much resistance would they likely attract on the way. To that end, it was like the horsepower that fueled organization decisions, or key changes - senior folks simply had more horsepower than the lesser mortals. In such a Dilbertesque world, needless to say, it didn't matter much if the boss really knew the stuff - the fact that he was the BOSS was mostly enough to get things done. The power was in the role, and not necessarily in the roleholder.
However, in the new flat world, power is mostly displaced by "credibility". It is not enough to be a senior anymore to bring about changes or make key decisions - if you don't have the credibility, people are likely to reject your ideas. And given the nature of roles in today's workplace, roles don't guarantee credibility. One must work hard to build it. The challenge is - how do we establish genuine credibility when we are new to a system, or when we don't have enough data points about our track record? Is there a roadmap that can help people evaluate what are they doing, where are they at this point and what more could they do to improve their credibility?
2015-11-17-1447720783-2432186-dabbawalas.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-11-17-1447720783-2432186-dabbawalas.jpg
Mumbai's world-famous "Dabbawalas" have built a rock-solid credibility over time.
Merriam-Webster defines credibility as "the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real, or honest", and comes from the Latin word "credo" which means "I believe". To be truly believed is not the same as simply knowing someone, or even be colleagues at work or good friends. Indeed, it takes a lot to be believed upon by others! While someone being percieved as credible might not require one to possess a superhuman personality, earning that credibility could take years of sincere hard work. Credibility is not about being the smartest or the most knowledgeable person in the room, or someone who has the most charismatic social personality, or has the most "power" or "connections", or is the loudest, or even having the most number of followers on their social media. If anything, credibility is all about being sincere, honest, transparent, person of integrity, objective, self-confident, knowledgeable, professional, humble, and authentic. But, how do you build credibility? As Henry Ford said, you can't build reputation on what you plan do to. Clearly, you must deliver something of value so that people can take you seriously.
I have been experimenting and studying about building credibility for some years now, and based on my readings, anecdotal data, observations and first-hand experiences (read that as "mistakes"), I have distilled my learnings into what I call as the 4E model, which has four distinct stages. This has served me well, especially in new jobs and groups where my past credentials didn't matter much. I had to everytime start in those forums from a clean slate and find a way to build solid and genune credibility.
Here's how the 4E model goes:
Stage 1. Evangelize: You refer to the experts
When you start your journey, you are a rookie in the field, and have nothing much to offer. More often than not, you are more like a pilgrim in search of the truth than a source of wisdom or truth yourself! To that end, you have no real credibility to offer. Perhaps the best approach at this point is to find someone you look up to as the true north and follow them like hell. Just make sure you are not following a 'fake north'. The idea or the individual you choose to follow could be an established thought leader in the chosen space - someone whose work influences a significant number of people in the community, and whose name inspires trust in the community.
By choosing to refer to their work and building upon it (say, apply those ideas in a given setting), you will first have to commit yourslf to study their work deeply - for nothing is caught as fast as a fake, and you surely don't want to build genuine credibility on the foundations of fake expertize! It will also be relatively easier for you to find the right audience, for the ideas that you support and evangalize are already well-known and reasonably well-accepted by the community at large, it will make easier for you find a toehold among other practitioners. Make no mistake - talking about experts won't make you an expert yourself, but will help you find other like-minded people who will begin to accept you in their circle. Starting with enthusiasm, you will steadily graduate to a higher awareness, more knowledge and evntually to mastery of the idea.
As an Evangelist, you essentially have no credibility of your own apart from being a loyal follower and perhaps a passionate evangalist of an idea, or an individual. For example, you might be a big believer in animal rights, and might utilize every opportunity to talk about the seminal work of great giants in the field, but have no real story of your own to share. However, you could take those ideas and build upon it in your neighborhood. When you have achieved a fair amount of success in being an able follower and share your story, it will open doors for you to be accepted by other followers, and the your hard work will help you stand out in your mastery of the subject.
Stage 2. Experiment: You talk of your own work
Once you have built a rock-solid understanding of a topic, and enough people are willing to give you credit for being a subject matter 'expert' (though in all honesty, you are not an 'expert', you are simply being an ardent follower of a well-known idea or an individual), it opens the doors for you to experiment with some tweaks. Perhaps you see the opportunity to collaborate with someone else in the community, or adapt some of the peripheral ideas - without really touching the central idea. Given the already earned "credibility" by now, chances are high that people will accept your experiments without outrightly dismissing them as something too shallow without really much understanding of the core idea. The fact that you have paid your dues will help people take you more seriously, even if they don't take your idea itself very seriously at this stage. In the first stage, you were piggybacking on someone else' idea to build your credibility, now you are encashing a little bit of that hard-earned personal crediblity to provide some tailwind to your own idea. The more credibility you have earned in Stage 1, the more it will help propel your idea further.
It is important that we don't blow our own trumpet just yet! In fact, we should never do that. If anything, it's the people, the community that might like your ideas, and bestow you with their faith in your work in the Stage 4. However, at this point, one must simply be very humble about one's experiments. You aim is not to make noise by punching holes in some expert's work, but simply to solve the problems well, and if you discover something novel, then build enough ground support so that people around you will help you launch it. At this point, you are still a learning - just that you have graduated to being an experimental learner in Stage 2, from being a evangilical learner in Stage 1. By no means, should your experimenets be construed as demonstrations of expertize, expecially by you!
3. Endorse: You recommend other's work
If I go out on the street and start endorsing your work, chances are no one will notice either of us! If I don't have enough credibility on the street, people don't care even if I am endorsing a known and a well-proven idea or something very amateurish. However, when I have made my mark as someone with an original idea of my own, chances are high that my word will be take a bit more seriously than before. When a well-known critic reviews and praises your book, she is trading her own credibility by your ideas, and risks losing her own hard-earned credibility if your ideas turn out to be not so good. So, endorsement is not just saying good words about anything and everything, but carefully picking what to bet on!
As opposed to Stage 1, in the Endorse stage, you are endorsing not just well-known ideas but also new and emerging ideas, and the reason people will accept them at this point is because you have been through Stage 1 and Stage 2. If you directly start endorsing ideas without having first built your own personal and professional credibility, there might be no takers for your endorsements. We see this all the time on LinkedIn. In general, you can very easily spot fake recommendations not by looking at what does the citation read but by checking out the profile of the endorser.
4. Expert: Your work is referred by others
This is the pinnacle of credibility - you have done something new and innovative, and helped advance the professional body of knowledge. Your ideas have withstood the test of time, and now other practitioners are beginning to refer to it, and even extend it (just the way you were doing when you started out in Stage 1. The community at large recognizes your credibility.
Being an expert is not a matter of instant nirvana! One must go through the painful process of building one's credibility that allows the community to understand how well your ideas help them, and how good you really are. I don't believe one can become overnight expert without putting in solid efforts to go through these stages. Of course there are statistical outliers, but most of us have to go through the trial by fire.
Conclusions
In my experience, the most imporant "power" one has in a flat world is their credibility. Sometimes your credibility proceeds you, but mostly, you might find yourself in a situation when your past laurels don't matter much to the people, and you must restart from scratch. In such situations, I found the 4E model as a good starting point, and depending on how much you are willing to commit yourself in Stage 1, you might be able to build credibility faster. However, I don't recommend that this model is used like a project plan. It could be like an invisible roadmap in the back of your mind that guides you to stay honest to your mission rather than simply check the boxes and somehow move on to the next stage.
The 4E model doesn't give you are timeline. It depends on how well you achieve credibility in a given stage rather than how fast you do it. Everything else equal, I would always recommend doing it well over rushing through it.
The 4E model also doesn't really give a linear sequence. It might appear to give you a sense of progression, but you don't stop doing things of earlier stages. Knowledge is always growing, and I don't believe there is anyone out there who can proclaim they have nothing left to learn anymore! So, its very likely that you will find yourself in all the stages, and that's ok.
Finally, the 4E model won't make you an expert, ever. Your hard work will lead you to that, and the 4E model can at best be your GPS, because remember that no journey worth doing is ever a straight line.
Tathagat Varma started his career as a computer scientist with defense, before playing a long innings in the software industry. Last year he founded Thought Leadership, a boutique consulting firm specializing in strategy, agility, innovation and leadership. He is among the 'coolest' management consultants having spent sixteen months in icy Antarctica as part of the 13th Indian Scientific Expedition back in 1993-95. He is currently writing a book on Agile Product Development for a major global publisher.

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