This is an interesting question, one on which I have had many conversations with clients, friends, and academics alike. It is an issue that is central to many commentators and academics.
It is a conundrum in itself. I want to believe people, all people, can change. Yet I also believe in not wasting time and instead, channelling my energy into the areas where I can create effective change.
Can perceptions of tarnished or fractured credibility be turned around?
As a mediator and a communication and conflict coach, I see people whose credibility (according to the other party) had walked out the door long ago. In my work I continue to be amazed as I observe two parties in conflict start learn more about each other’s intentions and consequently create a path forward that previously seemed impossible.
And in some cases build or rebuild genuine relationships.
However, rebuilding someone’s reputation, assuming it can be done, is a slow process. To understand how to rebuild credibility I think it is important to remember credibility is a ‘perception’ based on a combination of aligned values (or non-offending values) and positive personal experiences. So when credibility is tarnished or fractured is it because there appears to be a new values ‘gap’ - or is it that the ‘observer’s’ personal experience has changed and the other individual has failed to meet new expectations?
Within my work it is easier for credibility to be recovered when the reason for the breakdown is that personal experience has changed. It is much harder when the reason is values based, significantly harder - I’ll talk more on that later - and there are times when the door will be totally closed.
While pondering these questions can keep me engrossed for hours at a time, I think the important question to ask oneself is;
What role am I playing in either tarnishing or fracturing my own or others credibility?
John Gottman, a well-known marital expert, describes how, within an hour of observing a couple, he can gather with 95% accuracy if the couple will be together within 15 years. His accuracy goes down to 90% if he observes the couples for 15 minutes, supporting the phenomenon of thin-slicing.
Thin-slicing is a term used in psychology and philosophy to describe the ability to find patterns in events based only on "thin slices," or narrow windows, of experience.
While Gottman’s work is set in the marital context the principles apply in every day communication.
Gottman's theory states that there are four major emotional reactions that are destructive and thus are the four predictors to a divorce: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Among these four Gottman considers contempt the most important of them all.
In the corporate context I would say that there are four communication behaviours that are destructive and thus are the four predictors to a break down in a professional working relationship and an individuals credibility: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. With contempt being the worst as it comes from a position of superiority.
So the takeaways from Gottman to apply in every day work life are:
- Criticism – turn it around and be constructive
- Defensiveness – avoid being defensive and move towards comprehending the others position and why they hold the view they have about your action.
- Stonewalling - connect back to the overall goal and seek to understand what others need and why they need it. Share, within the limits of your role and authority.
- Contempt – this is harder. You rarely wake up with contempt for someone. It builds over time. To avoid being in this position attempt to proactively address (either directly with the individual to via support with you HR personnel) the actions and behaviours that are an issue for you.
I would like to expand on the takeaway for contempt. The problem with having contempt for someone it is very hard to hide (and I have been in environments where there has been no attempt to do so which has its own set of issues). So here’s a secondary issue, others will see your contempt and it may impact your reputation. It may appear as you are judging them and putting them down and that you are putting yourself on high moral ground. And some off you may be thinking ‘hey that’s not fair, I am not the one that did… that’s unacceptable and I am being judged for it. I did not do any wrong’.
So my question here is why change how you behave, because of others. Address the actions and behaviours that are an issue and move on.
So, to answer the original question I believe credibility can be recovered in most situations.
If you have a situation you need help in turning around and cannot find the words to do it, call or drop me a line. Life will be better the sooner you address it.
I look forward to your feedback.