The Credibility Trap

Popular onboarding literature urges New Leaders to make their mark quickly, with impact, and gain credibility by generating immediate results. On the face of it, this approach resonates with many who are in the onboarding process. They want their employer to see them as an asset, and they are eager to demonstrate their value. However, this focus on high-impact performance and early wins creates a bind – trapping the New Leader in an ineffective pattern of behavior. 

If New Leaders take a narrow focus on “proving themselves” through accomplishments and outcomes, it is often at the expense of their relationships and long-term effectiveness. Then again, if they are overly cautious or wait too long to take action, they risk being seen as unproductive or "not getting it." In other words, it’s important that they get it “just right.”

Avoid Aggression for Aggression’s Sake
In most organizations, New Leaders put their reputation at risk when they start barreling through processes with their own agendas. Preoccupied with proving their capabilities, they often completely miss the point that understanding and showing respect for their new organizations and their colleagues (at all levels) are the keys to building credibility.

This aggressive approach makes it challenging to include others in driving performance. Behaving in a way that damages relationships and alienates others will disrupt a New Leader’s momentum. If left feeling estranged, people in the organization can sidestep and even stonewall important initiatives. Eventually, a New Leader will use up their “new kid on the block” capital, and their reputation will be locked in place – good or bad.

The Past is Not Always Prologue

Leaders are often recruited from admired organizations and hired based on notable successes in their previous position. When they assume the same results in their new organizations can be obtained by mirroring actions from their former roles, they frequently fail, and their credibility diminishes. By constantly mentioning prior accomplishments, New Leaders may intend to reassure colleagues that they are capable and experienced, but they can inadvertently come across as devaluing an organization, its protocols and its people. 

It’s a matter of fact: to thrive in a new role, leaders must take time to adapt their approach to the new organization and consider its context. Unfortunately, those involved in the selection process often forget to point out the need for such acclimation, and New Leaders are left with the mistaken assumption that they already are a good “fit.”  

 Transforming Tasks into Trust

New Leaders who research the history and style of their organizations, and actively seek out input from all involved, will find the support they need to complete objectives in a manner that works for everyone. Importantly, they will be seen as considerate and approachable, building the relationships that are needed to reach goals on a more efficient timeline.

New Leaders engender trust when they direct attention away from themselves, defer to the expertise and experience of their new colleagues, and share recognition. In their Harvard Business Review article “The Quick Wins Paradox,” Mark E. Van Buren and Todd Safferstone note that leaders who share credit for achievements establish trust through that simple act, making their credibility more substantial.

So What is the “Right Way” to Learn About the Organization?

To establish credibility, should New Leaders completely dismantle their past practices and start “from scratch” because they changed positions? Not necessarily. Those looking to rapidly gain knowledge about their new organizations can share past experiences in a way that will contribute to positive outcomes.
To find that balance consider these questions:

1.  Who are the key stakeholders to your success? How can you establish relationships and
     partnerships with them? Do your colleagues agree on the direction and priority of
     initiatives and activities?
(See our blog on Relationships)
2.  Who is the most influential leader?
3.  Who might be unhappy about your appointment to this role?
4.  What hidden pitfalls and barriers might keep your team from reaching their goals?
5.  How do things get done here?
(See our blog on Culture)
6.  What behavior is valued? What can get New Leaders in trouble?
7.  For specific initiatives, ask:

  • What was attempted before?
  • What worked? Why?
  • What hasn’t worked? Why?
  • Who were the strongest supporters? Why?
  • Where has the initiative struggled due to lack of support?  Why?

New Leaders who push too hard (and too quickly) to make an individual, indelible mark on an organization risk irrelevance and derailment. Conversely, effective leaders understand and address the paradox of gaining credibility. They balance the need to demonstrate their worth by learning about and valuing the organization while interacting in a way that builds their reputation.

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Posted in Advice for New Leaders, Common Mistakes New Leaders Make, How to Truly Understand Your New Role and Operation, Managing New Team, New Leader Paradox, OnBoarding as Risk Management, Things to Look Out For.