puncturing water balloon with needle

By Rodger Dean Duncan (this article by Dr. Duncan originally appeared in Fast Company magazine)

You wouldn’t deliberately dilute your own credibility. But it’s possible that some of your innocent behaviors are producing precisely that unintended consequence.

Credibility problems can come in the form of Trust Busters. Let’s consider two of the most common ones, along with their fixes that I call Trust Builders

Trust Buster #1: Double Talk

This takes many forms, all of which damage or destroy trust:

  • “Spin”: We communicate with others by sharing our opinions and championing our causes. That’s fair and understandable and a natural part of human interaction. “Spin,” on the other hand, is often used as a pejorative term, and rightfully so. “Spin” usually describes a heavily biased portrayal in one’s own favor of an event, situation, or topic. Although it’s possible to spin information honestly, the term as used here implies disingenuous, deceptive, and even manipulative tactics. An obvious example would be the state-run media in some countries that selectively allow news stories that are favorable to the government while censoring anything deemed critical. A common example closer to home is the blather that tries to pass itself off as helpful information in the annual reports of public companies. When a letter to shareholders begins with “This was a challenging year for our company . . .” it’s a pretty safe bet that what follows is the rhetorical equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig – the company’s performance nose-dived, targets were missed, and it can all be blamed on market conditions and political intrigue beyond the control of management.
  • Cherry picking: This is a close cousin of spin, and takes the form of selectively presenting facts and quotes to support a particular position. The result is often a false impression. Politicians do it all the time. A member of Congress might highlight a piece of legislation he claims to have co-sponsored. The way he tells the story you’d think he was riding into town on a white horse as the primary champion of the cause. In reality, he fails to mention that the legislation is also co-sponsored by more than a hundred other Congressmen and that his actual involvement amounted to little more than adding his name to the list. In the corporate world, cherry picking often occurs when restructuring is announced, when performance initiatives are rolled out, and when organization charts are reshuffled. Trust suffers.
  • Euphemisms: These are words designed to deflect attention from something considered distasteful or unpleasant. In some families, nobody ever dies, they “pass away.” In some social circles, nobody is insulted or disrespected, they are “marginalized.” In some companies, people don’t get fired or dismissed, they are “outplaced.” As one writer said, euphemisms are like secret agents on a delicate mission, they are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne. The trouble with euphemisms is that despite the cologne they still stink.
  • Jargon: Much like slang, jargon is terminology that often develops as a kind of short-hand used by members of a group – like computer people talk about RAM, CPU, URLs, and related things. Acronyms – abbreviations formed from initial letters or a term or phrase – are another kind of jargon. These are not inherently a problem, but they tend to fog up communication when used to excess or with people unfamiliar with the code.
  • Buzzwords: Buzzwords are in a class by themselves. These overused terms are common to corporate, technical, administrative, and political environments, but they’re evident in other places, too. While jargon (ideally) at least has a defined technical meaning, buzzwords are often used primarily to impress with a pretense of knowledge. Instead, they usually result in opaque sentences with mushy meaning.  I saw one organization’s so-called mission statement that read something like this: “In a spirit of continuous improvement, it is our responsibility to provide access to low-risk high-yield benefits to our customers and to administrate economically sound policies while promoting personal growth and fulfillment for our associates.” My ninth grade English teacher would have kicked me out of class for writing a sentence like that. When used sanely, words like leverage, passion, bandwidth, paradigm, empowerment, framework, and space have a welcome place in our language. But when strung together in a cobweb of obfuscation, the result is bewilderment, not communication; suspicion, not trust.
  • Vague commitments: When a boy picks up your teenage daughter for a date, you’ll likely want some information about what’s on the agenda for the evening – things like where they’re going, who will be there, what the activity will be, and when you can expect your daughter to return home. You want your daughter to have fun and, above all, you want her to be safe. If the guy gives you no more data than “I’ll bring her back,” you’ll have second thoughts about letting your daughter out the front door. In the business world, vague commitments are no less of a trust buster. Some people pay lip service to clarifying expectations, but then they fail to provide specifics on results, deadlines, budgets, or most anything else about performance. It makes no difference whether this failure is inadvertent or by design. The effect is the same: fragile trust.

Trust Builder #1: Clear the Fog

Honesty and clarity are the best prevention against double talk. Simply don’t engage in double talk in the first place. Avoid ambiguous or evasive language. Use simple words. Lay out the whole story, warts and all. Billionaire Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a model of straight talk in all his business dealings. It’s especially evident in his annual “management letter” to shareholders. Buffett’s phenomenal success is something he gladly shares with his vice chairman Charles Unger, his small staff, and the managers of his various companies. He’s also quick to shoulder responsibility for the negative. He says things like “If Charlie and I fail, we will have no excuses,” and “When Charlie and I make mistakes, they are – in tennis parlance – unforced errors.”

Clearing the Fog is not complicated:

  • To avoid “spin,” be sure that all sides to an issue get a fair hearing. Remember that a pig with a lipstick is still a pig. Play it straight. People appreciate – and trust – plain talk.
  • Use examples that are plausible, relevant, and real. People trust illustrations that connect to their world.
  • Use language that stands up straight. Words that lurk behind corners or tip-toe around issues are neither credible nor convincing. Political correctness is a particular offender.
  • Make specific, realistic commitments. Then honor them.

Trust Buster #2: Pulling Rank

Some people try to exert influence by using the power of their position or authority. Maybe their ego gets in the way. Maybe they delight in the role of bully. Maybe they’re impatient and just want others to do things their way. Maybe they simply lack confidence and are reluctant to entertain the views of others. Whatever the reasons, pulling rank is never effective in engaging peoples’ heads, hearts, and hopes. In fact, it does just the reverse.

During my years at Campbell Soup Company I worked for two CEOs – Harold Shaub and Gordon McGovern. They were worlds apart in virtually every aspect of leadership. Harold Shaub was an old school executive whose closest colleagues – even those who had worked with him for more than thirty five years – still called him “Mr.” He clearly preferred surrounding himself with “yes men,” people who blindly followed his orders with no alternatives offered and no questions asked. He seemed to relish the perks of his office, and was none-too-subtle about reminding people that he was the boss. When Shaub retired, he was replaced in the corner office by Gordon McGovern.

Gordon was nearly a direct opposite. He preferred the employee cafeteria over the executive dining room with its silver and china and deferential butlers. Though well-bred and Ivy League educated, Gordon was informal and approachable. He thrived on lively conversation, especially with people who offered opposing views. He was as comfortable chatting with a worker on the plant production line as he was in talking with a member of the board of directors. In fact, because Gordon was so approachable, he got some of his best ideas from people who operated at several rungs lower on the organization chart. He seemed totally blind to the issues of rank. Though this seemed to annoy some of the Harold Shaub holdovers in the executive suite, it endeared Gordon to nearly everyone else in the company. He was, by far, more effective than his predecessor in bringing out the best in others.

Trust Builder #2: Drop the Pretense

Using one’s higher status to compel obedience or obtain privileges is guaranteed to spawn resentment. When a boss pulls rank, people respond more out of compliance than out of commitment. Besides, pulling rank often comes across not as a sign of strength but as a sign of weakness. Pulling rank looks like a last resort, even when used early. After all, the reasoning goes, why would anyone need to pull rank if his viewpoint could stand on its own merits?

Let’s get real. Even though you may have position, title, a reserved parking space, and maybe a bigger desk lamp than the guy next door, you’re really no smarter than most of the people in your organization. You may have “paid your dues,” to get where you are. But that doesn’t mean you have more brain cells. So drop the pretense. You’re all in this together. And the better you are at exercising influence rather than authority, the better you’ll be at engaging the heads, hearts, and hopes of your colleagues.

Here are five steps to help you Drop the Pretense:

(1)  Question your motives. Are you using your position or authority to browbeat people into doing things your way? Are you trying to stifle open discussion? Are you using the leverage of your position just because you can? Do you somehow feel threatened – for example, by someone who offers a view difference from yours? If the roles were reversed and someone tried to pull rank on you, how would you feel?

(2)  Examine your case. Are there leaks in the case you’re trying to make for adopting your view? Is pulling rank just a way to camouflage those leaks?

(3)  Inspect your language. Are you using words like “It’s my way or the highway . . .” or “Remember that I’m the boss . . .”or “Just do what you’re told . . .” or “I thought you liked working here”? These are blatant examples of pulling rank, with bullying thrown in.

(4)  Consider the desired outcomes. If mutual purpose and mutual respect are what you really want in your relationships, you’ll realize that pulling rank introduces a tone that’s contrary to mutuality.

(5)  Practice your conversation skills. Remember that true dialogue cannot occur in an atmosphere where one person tries to exert power over another.  Beware the temptation to shift gears from collaboration to command-and-control. Listen with empathy. This means listening to understand, not to judge or rebut. Inquire to discover. Advocate with respect. All of these dialogue skills reinforce a “we’re all in this together” tone and diminish the temptation to exercise unrighteous dominion by pulling rank.

Rodger Dean Duncan