Why People Believe Their Leaders — or Not

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Leadership is the relationship between people who aspire to lead and those who choose whether or not to follow.  And it hinges on the leader’s credibility, which is difficult to build and easy to lose.  In recent years, numerous corporate executives —including the CEOs of BP, Wells Fargo, and Volkswagen — have learned that tough lesson through high-profile scandals that swiftly damaged their reputations.

But what’s at the heart of credibility?  Two critical elements:

  • Perceived competence; that is, people’s faith in the leader’s knowledge, skills, and ability to do the job.  And,
  • Trustworthiness; that is, their belief in his or her values and dependability.

Such views are formed through direct and indirect observation of the leader’s work and performance.  And these perceptions are extremely important in a digital age, when vast amounts of information about people can be captured and scrutinized through technologies like smart sensors and artificial intelligence systems.  Employees also seek assurance that those who are managing them and assessing their performance are competent and trustworthy.

Researchers have identified several broadly defined behaviors that influence whether leaders are perceived that way.  These behaviors include knowing oneself, appreciating one’s constituents, affirming shared values, developing new capabilities, serving a purpose, and sustaining hope.  However, not much has been written about concrete actions that enhance or harm a leader’s credibility.  Indeed, it’s widely assumed that behaviors that don’t increase credibility naturally decrease it. 

Research has begun to challenge this assumption. but there are many unanswered questions.  So, Professors Daniel Han Ming Chng, Tae-Yeol Kim, Brad Gilbreath, and Lynne Andersson set out to learn more.  They explored the specific behaviors that affect how people assess their leaders’ competence and trustworthiness and, in turn, their credibility.  To do so, they conducted several field studies over three years, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, to understand what affects leaders’ credibility and how their credibility influences employee behaviors and organizational...

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