By Dr. Prasad Kaipa
Not long ago, I called a friend of mine who had promised to help me with a project. He was very sincere when he offered his help, so I assumed that he would return my phone call soon enough for me to get on with the next steps.
After two more messages and a conversation, I realized that he had moved on and did not have time or inclination to work on the project anymore. When I mentioned this disappointment to my family, my children reminded me that I don't always keep my word to them. My inability to quickly return their phone calls, to be on time to meet with them, or to get ready on time when we are going for family outings are a few of the circumstances where I failed to keep my word. Ultimately, how can I feel disappointed about somebody else not keeping their word if I can't even keep my own?
This situation got me thinking. When I grew up in India, my grandparents used to talk about integrity and how it builds character. In their terms, integrity is deeply connected to a Sanskrit word called, "Trikarana Suddhi." This word means alignment between one's words, actions and feelings. My grandparents also used to say that you cannot take back a word once it is spoken. It is no longer simply a thought inside your head; it's now out in the world, shaping your reputation.
When your words and actions don't align, you have fallen into the Credibility Gap. When you have a credibility gap at your workplace, it is damaging to your reputation and to your career. And if you're in a leadership or customer service role, your credibility gap could be hurting your company.
The key question is: do your actions — not just your words or your intentions — reflect the values you stand for? For an example of this at the company level, let us look at the Container Store. I (along with my colleague Navi Radjou) recently had an opportunity to interview their Chairman and CEO, Kip Tindell. He was sharing how he walks the talk about putting employees first. "If you take care of your employees, they'll take care of the customers — and that will take care of your shareholders. So we invest heavily in our employees. Our sales staff receives 240 hours of training; the industry average is eight. We offer health care coverage to part-timers, and we offer what we call 'mom-and-pop shifts' that allow parents to drop off and pick up their children," Tindell explained. The more your actions, words, and values are aligned, the smaller your credibility gap will be.
Bridging the credibility gap takes time and effort, and it is much easier to lose credibility than to gain it back. You need actions, not just words. For example, Apple has been accused of not paying sufficient attention to labor, health, and environmental issues when it comes to its overseas suppliers. Recently, Apple joined The Fair Labor Association and posted its 2012 suppliers list. Tim Cook went to China and is attempting to resolve the issue instead of making it go away through PR statements. For an individual, the same principle applies: values, words, and actions must align for your reputation to be rebuilt in the world.
The most effective way to start bridging the credibility gap is to be more aware of what you say. Think through whether your words might be perceived as promises. Eg, "I'll call you next week," "I'll get back to your proposal soon," or "I'll send the check by end of this month." These seem like the kind of things we are all guilty of over-promising and under-delivering. Create a system to keep track of those promises. If you make a promise in the heat of the moment, or if you do not have the resources to follow through with your word, don't avoid the issue — explicitly seek forgiveness. By acknowledging that you made a promise you couldn't keep, you actually make yourself more credible.
Wise leaders reflect on their credibility with questions like:
•Am I saying something that implies a promise? What are the odds I can or will actually follow through?
•How can I articulate my ideas and concerns in such a way as to not raise false expectations?
•What kind of credibility do I currently have with my family, my organization, and my community? What kind of credibility do I want?
•Where or with whom do I have special difficulty bridging my credibility gap?
•Who can support me in keeping my word?
How are you minding your credibility gap? What is working and what is missing?