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What to Do When You’ve Lost Credibility

A few days ago, a friend emailed me about a problem at their company. One of their senior leaders had done something that lost credibility with a team. She was wondering what (if anything) this person could do to fix it.

The question immediately reminded me of an old fable I first heard from Zig Ziglar:

The Reality You Face

One day fire, water, and trust were about to go for a walk in a forest. Someone asked the three of them, “What should I do if I can’t find you?”

Fire said, “Look up. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Water said, ”Look for the plants growing. Where you see green, there I am.”

Trust said, “You’ll have a much harder time finding me. Once trust is lost, it’s very hard to find again.”

But not impossible.

Given the right actions (and time) you can work to restore both trust and your credibility. Here’s where to start:

1. If You Messed Up, Apologize

All of us have done stupid things to break trust or credibility in a relationship. A genuine apology is an obvious first step when we’ve messed up. Dale Carnegie said:

If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Start with an apology, but be sure it’s genuine. If you’re not sure how to do this, you’re not alone. A lot of us have messed this up.

Get on track with three steps to an authentic apology. But an apology is only the starting point.

2. Change Your Behavior

As hard as it is to admit you messed up, changing your behavior is often even more challenging. Without change, people perceive that talk is cheap, further undermining your credibility.

To do something different going forward (one component of an authentic apology) it’s essential you follow-through.

Here are five ways to do this:

  • Employ an app or service like Habit List or to make daily progress towards your goal

  • Use your task management system to remind you of new actions you’ve committed to take

  • Get an accountability buddy (although not the person/people you’ve wronged)

  • Enroll in a course that will teach you to be more effective with people (this one is my favorite)

  • Hire a coach who can give you personal attention to get better

3. Make Frequent Deposits

A common complaint I’ve heard from people trying to restore trust is, “I’ve apologized and changed my behavior — but they still don’t trust me.”

Relationships are not unlike investment accounts. It you make a large withdrawal from your 401k, it’s going to take a lot of new deposits in the future to restore the prior balance.

Someone asked awhile back in a class:

What do you do when your wife accuses you of only being nice to her because you’re taking the Dale Carnegie Course.

My response was quick:

You’ll prove her right if you go back to your old behaviors when this course ends.

People will notice a positive change in the short-term, but just like your 401k, it’s what you do in the long-run that counts.

4. It’s Always Up to Them

Sorry to disappoint, but ultimately it’s out of your hands if your trust or credibility gets restored.

The first three steps will greatly improve your odds of restoring trust. And without them, failure is all but certain.

But with them, there’s no guarantee. Even when trust is regained, rarely are past wrongs forgotten.

You can do everything right going forward and some people may never come around, even if the original wrong was minor. Most of us know people who’ve long held onto grudges for seemingly inconsequential things.

You can’t demand trust or credibility. It can only be earned. Remember Dale Carnegie’s advice:

Do the very best you can.

All you can do is your best going forward. Use that as your measuring stick for success.

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