April 16, 2020
Since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, we have all heard a variety of communications from different sources. Messages come from politicians, patients, health care workers, news commentators, physicians, and epidemiologists. Some of these experts have excellent communication skills, while others have in-depth knowledge and expertise. Have you found that some of these messages are more believable than others? What makes some so much more convincing than others?
To answer that question, we looked at data we had gathered on thousands of managers, along with feedback from their managers, peers, direct reports and others. We first analyzed the impact of credibility on a manager’s effectiveness ratings at communication. In this analysis, we examined data from 110,459 leaders.
The results clearly demonstrate that credibility has a significant influence on a person’s ability to communicate effectively. We have all been in a meeting or watched the news where a person with no actual knowledge or experience was pontificating on an event or potential outcome and said to ourselves, “I seriously doubt that is true!” Other times we have heard an expert describe a potential outcome, in a less than eloquent way, and said to ourselves, “I believe that’s right!”
What is clear from the analysis is that credibility highly impacts the effectiveness of any communication. When highly credible people communicate more effectively, their impact is extraordinary.
The Interplay of Credibility and Communication Skills
Our second question was, “What is the relative importance of credibility versus excellent communication skills on the impact of a message?” To answer this question, we focused on direct reports of a manager. We ask each direct report the extent to which they had confidence that the goals of the organization would be achieved. In total, we looked at data from 97,951 leaders and 509,907 direct reports. The data from direct reports were averaged for each leader. On average, each manager had 5.2 direct reports in their group. We then isolated the data further by looking only at leaders in the top and bottom quartile on each dimension of communication and credibility. In the graph below, we show results from two opposite dimensions (low = bottom quartile and high = top quartile). The results were surprising because those with high credibility and low communication skills had direct reports with significantly higher confidence than the high communications, low credibility group. These results were statistically significant with a t value = 2.239, Sig = 0.026. To validate this finding, we created an experimental design, randomly sampling 50% of the cases and found that the results were still statistically significant (t value = 2.043, Sig = 0.043).
These results demonstrate that credibility is essential, but so are communication skills. When leaders were high in both skills, the confidence of their direct reports rose substantially to the 73rd percentile.
The shining example of this combination has come from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This medical doctor has devoted decades to studying epidemics, so he speaks with a calm voice of authority. Along with that, he has a pleasant smile and explains things so that laypeople understand. His responses to questions are never demeaning or dismissive. We see other experts with good technical credentials, but who lack the charming way of presenting their message.
How to Communicate When you Lack credibility
Often leaders are put into a position of having to communicate to others when they lack credibility. We have found that some ineffective and effective approaches can be used.
The Wrong Way
The Right Way
Several years ago, I was observing my colleague Jack Zenger give a presentation to a group of high-level executives. One of the participants raised their hand and asked a very difficult question. I had no idea how to answer the question and said to myself, “I’m glad that Jack is presenting and not me!” I was very curious about how Jack would respond. Jack looked at the group and said, “This is a very intelligent group of executives here, would any of you have an answer to this question?” Several people responded, and then Jack added an additional comment. My observation of what Jack did was that asking the group for input in no way diminished his credibility, in fact, it seemed to increase his credibility.
Communication is a critical skill for leaders in normal times but also in a crisis. Credibility is also critical, but as a leader utilize your position to find the best answers from those with the greatest credibility.
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