organizational development and change tools and techniques for consultants and others

Increasing credibility through visibility, communication, and active listening

It is important to not only listen to what people are saying in return, but to show that you are listening through key gestures and active listening techniques. If you lean forward and look directly at a person while they are talking, you are clearly showing interest; leaning back might be seen as dismissive.

Summarizing and rephrasing their arguments (“So, as I understand it, you're saying that...”) helps them to see that you were paying attention; and they can tell you if you misunderstood their argument. Asking questions helps to show that you care or respect the speaker; but most importantly, not arguing until the person has had a chance to fully develop their point can make a huge difference, not just in their perception of you, but in your understanding of their argument — which might surprise you by being valid when fully explained.

Try not to finish the other person’s sentences or “fill in the gaps” (break the silence when the other person might still have something to say). Some people operate more quickly than others.

Some ways to show you are interested, through body language (North American norms): mimic the other person’s position (subtly), look directly at them (though prolonged eye contact can be offensive), keep your head up (but not too high), don't keep looking at the person and then away, keep your arms uncrossed, avoid nervous gestures, try not to lower your eyebrows, and don't fidget or shift your weight. Putting your hands behind your head might show interest.

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Credibility appears to be linked to visibility, based on our research (below). We believe it’s largely because, if a manager keeps their employees informed of the decisions and changes they're considering (and their thought processes along the way), the employees can think along with the manager, or at least understand their rationale. The decisions will not seem to contradict the manager's previous stance. But, if a manager presents changes or decisions all at once, they may be seen as capricious or uncredible, especially if their new ideas reverse the status quo or their previous policies.

This is not unique to business. When a child is growing up, the parents will usually not be surprised by its rapid growth, because they see the changes occuring day by day; and, at that rate, the changes are very slow. But someone who sees the child only every year may be shocked at the child's growth. The high visibility of the child reduces surprise at its growth. In the same way, the high visibility of a manager's thought processes may reduce employees' surprise at the results, and their belief that the manager is arbitrarily contradicting their past spoken or unspoken (e.g. status quo) arguments.

Visibility, to be effective, must include discussing changes with the people who are affected by them. This must be done at every step: from diagnosing problems to finding solutions. This improves a manager's credibility by showing their thoughts from beginning to end; that prevents changes from seeming capricious or sudden, because people will usually understand the reasons, and have some warning. Change may be resisted less, because people will understand its purpose and feel they have control over it.

An important byproduct of discussing changes with people who will be affected by them is that you will be able to get their input and ideas. This can be very important; in addition to improving morale and reducing resistance to change, it can help you to make much better decisions.

Most well-educated people understand the importance of empowerment and listening to employees. Therefore, if a top manager is not accessible to employees, they will probably not be seen as credible. And, if a manager doesn't practice what they or the company preach, they will not be seen as credible. This is illustrated by the strong relationship between super- visors' accessibility and their integrity and trustworthiness. The more accessible the supervisors are, the more integrity they are seen as having.

A correlation table is presented below. A correlation is a number between a and 1 which shows how strong the linear relationship is between two variables. In this case, the variables are items from a survey of a medium-sized publishing house. All correlations are statistically significant; there is only a 1 in 100 chance that the relationships described below are due to chance.

The correlations illustrate how involving employees in decisions, actively seeking out their ideas, and keeping them involved in decision-making increases their perceptions of a manager's integrity, credibility, and trustworthiness. Therefore, senior managers may need to consider involving their employees more in their actions if they want to have more credibility; less resistance to change, greater morale, and new ideas are beneficial side-effects.

It is worth noting that executive credibility is not meaningfully linked with supervisor credibility, though both are linked to visibility.

Issue I Issue II r
Senior management
Executive visibility Executive credibility .64
Executive visibility Senior management credibility .47
Executive credibility Senior management credibility .76
Senior management and immediate supervisor
Executive visibility Supervisor is accessible when needed .26
Executive credibility Supervisor trustworthiness .22
Senior Management credibility Supervisor trustworthiness .15
Immediate supervisor    
Supervisor is trustworthy... Is accessible when needed .62
  Discusses my performance quarterly .37
  Doesn't play favorites .68
  Encourages me to make suggestions .68
  Demonstrates integrity day-to-day .77
  Discusses changes with us first .64
Has integrity day-to-day... Discusses my performance quarterly .37
  Doesn't play favorites .70
  Encourages me to make suggestions .65
  Is accessible when needed .58
  Discusses changes with us first .60

Of further note, the nature of communication is important. For supervisors, at least, discussing performance is much less critical for credibility — though it’s still necessary for performance management — than encouraging suggestions, discussing changes, and accessibility in general. It’s worth noting that the active act of encouraging suggestions appears to be the most powerful; discussing changes, the next most active act, is a close second.

This article copyright © 1998, David Zatz. Please do not reprint without written permission.

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