How to Win Back Credibility

As chairman and CEO at General Electric for 20 years between 1981 and 2001, Jack Welch was known as “Neutron Jack,” because his often-draconian decisions left buildings standing but removed all the people. When GE suffered a variety of public bruisings — scandals within the multinational corporation’s credit department, price-fixing with diamonds in South Africa, money-laundering and fraud in Israel — Walsh unilaterally announced that henceforward managers not only were required to meet performance goals, but had to do so within the company’s value system. Doing one without the other would be insufficient. And, in short order, a conglomerate that manufactured everything from light bulbs to locomotives became a model company because Jack Welch had regained his, and his company’s, credibility.

“I think you know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing, and I did a bad thing. And there you have it,” Hugh Grant told Jay Leno in 1995 after the actor was caught with a prostitute in Los Angeles. Grant went on to become a successful leading man in Hollywood — in part, I’ll argue, because he admitted his mistake and blamed no one but himself. That’s one way to mend a credibility gap.

President Bill Clinton, another man whose moral temptations got the best of him, was impeached for inappropriate actions with an intern and then lied to Congress about his behavior. He emerged as a consensus builder and a brilliant politician.

If those guys can regain their credibility, so can you. Here are 10 steps to put you back in good graces with colleagues and associates:

1. Assess the damage.

Try to understand what really occurred, factually and perceptively, that caused you to lose credibility. Ask others if you need objective help, because you can’t afford to underestimate the damage or assume it will pass with time. The damage O.J. Simpson did to his credibility did not pass with time.

2. Start rebuilding credibility with small steps.

Engage a few people or groups at a time, focusing on low-key topics and non-controversial issues. Make sure you deliver what you promise when you promise.

3. Admit your error.

Honesty counts for a whole lot in business. Lies have no place in running an ethical operation. Lying about a mistake or passing the blame will only undo whatever credibility you’ve managed to hold onto.

4. Learn the language of apology.

Sharing information about pending and completed decisions, apologizing for mistakes, and listening to and responding to concerns, questions and comments are at the core of leadership credibility. Simply understanding the power of apologetic language is a huge recovery step.

5. Channel your inner Johnny Carson.

Johnny Carson is one of my all-time favorite American entertainers. When a guest would mention a current event or piece of knowledge outside of Johnny’s realm, the host didn’t feign understanding, try to take over the conversation, or “one up” the guest. He simply said, “I did not know that.” That’s what I say now, and so should you.

6. Understand selective memory.

Allow some events to fade. Don’t keep reminding people of previous transgressions. You may have been tipsy at an office party, but someone else probably drank a lot more than you.

7. Realize that credibility is a volume knob, not an “on/off” switch.

It’s impossible to be “mostly pregnant,” but you can be “mostly credible.” Seek success, not perfection. Think of the needle registering on a gauge: You want it to keep rising, which represents strong and steady progress. It’s doesn’t need to be revving on the red line in order to be working properly.

8. Remember that all things are relative.

Nobody is asking you to be “the most credible” person ever at your job. You simply need to be credible. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most popular guy in the office or the best-liked gal in your department, so why strive to be the most credible? Such distinctions carry little weight in most cases.

9. Conduct conversations about your lapse.

This will allow you to prove you’re in a much better place now. Just don’t raise the issue incessantly. If you’re comfortable conversing about it, you’re going to make it a topic of conversation and not a cause célèbre.

10. Shake it off.

Don’t let mistakes undermine everything you do. Ignore the “doom loop” mentality of struggling with a credibility issue or an incident that serves only to further undermine your confidence and credibility.  Let it go the way an athlete overcomes a minor injury. Don’t go running to the training room or, worse, admit yourself to the hospital.

Follow these tips, and get ready to watch your credibility climb.

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