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Source Credibility and Its Impact on Leadership Credibility

We started with a breakdown of information overload and becoming more discerning about the information we rely on… which brings us to a really important topic: what makes a source credible? Choosing credible sources has far-reaching implications, including an impact on your own leadership credibility.

The Link between Source Credibility and Leadership Credibility

Graphic Showing Fine DiningBecause we’re deluged with information from an infinite number of sources, selecting the right sources is a daunting task. It’s easier to go along with what’s easily accessible and convenient, what’s familiar, what everyone else seems to be accepting, or what fits in with preconceived notions.  

Those shortcuts are dangerous! 

It takes time to build your leadership credibility and earn others’ trust. But a single act can damage your credibility. A single incident of poor judgment can inadvertently be a breach of trust. Repairing the damage takes considerably more time and effort than initially building it. 

Leaders with credibility are believed, trusted, and able to inspire team members. Others are confident in the leader’s choices and actions, so they willingly respond to requests and more readily accept changes initiated by this leader. 

Leaders with credibility gaps encounter skepticism, resistance, and outright refusal when introducing change. Employees are less engaged and less motivated. Productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability are all negatively affected over time. 

Credibility, in other words, is linked to effectiveness. To be effective as a leader, credibility is absolutely essential.

The cold, hard truth is that your intentions, values, and beliefs are irrelevant if your actions cause others to doubt you. When a leader makes a decision based on limited or bad information, they don’t get to take a mulligan. When people rely on you, they rely on your ability to wisely discern what information and inputs you will rely on. 

To maintain your credibility, you need sources that are credible and information that is accurate, unbiased, and complete.  

The 3 Components of Source Credibility

We often view complete strangers as credible sources. Take the sommelier at a fine dining restaurant, for example. Most folks seriously consider suggestions made by the sommelier to select a wine that will pair nicely with their meal. But why? 

Subconsciously, we believe a source is credible when that individual has expertise about a topic, when we feel we can trust what they say, and when they display positive energy that engages us. Without even thinking about it, we accept what these sources tell us because we know less than they do about the topic (and we have no reason to doubt them). That’s why, when a charming sommelier recommends a certain burgundy to complement your beef bourguignon, you readily agree. 

We use the same criteria to gauge source credibility in most situations. The three criteria we subconsciously evaluate are:  

  1. Expertise
  2. Trustworthiness
  3. Dynamism

Let’s take those one-by-one. Before deeming a source credible, be sure they have all three components of source credibility. 

Does the source have expertise? In this particular field, does this source know something or have experience that most others don’t? 

Because the sommelier is more familiar with wines in general, wines available in the restaurant, and how each wine pairs with each dish, we immediately recognize that they know far more than we do about selecting the right wine for this meal.  

When it comes to sources you rely on for weightier matters, you’ll want to be equally (or even more!) discerning about their expertise. Narrow expertise is usually more reliable than broad expertise. Relevant expertise is the most important consideration of all. 

Societally, there are a lot of blurred lines here. We often pay attention to the opinions of actors, sports figures, influencers, and politicians without hesitation. But do they really have relevant expertise in the areas where they have opinions? Having a platform and visibility doesn’t make someone an expert. Having fame or being recognized for achievements in one area doesn’t make someone an expert in other areas. 

The same is true in the workplace. Seek out the people who have firsthand knowledge and recent experience rather than turning to convenient, visible, high-profile folks. Expertise comes from doing the actual work, being in touch with what’s happening right now, and constantly focusing on a skill or discipline. Bigger titles don’t imbue titleholders with expertise. What’s more, expertise has an expiration date in a world of constant change. 

Is the source trustworthy? What evidence is there that this person can be trusted? Is there any reason not to trust this individual? 

Our assumption is that a fine dining restaurant and its chef will be protective of their reputation and must have great faith in the sommelier. By extension, we also trust this person.  

In leadership (and elsewhere), we often trust people without fully gauging their trustworthiness. We trust by extension, we reward demonstrated expertise with trust, and we rely on “gut instinct” and emotions instead of basing our decision to trust on demonstrated trustworthiness. 

But… sources with expertise are not automatically trustworthy. Having a great deal of knowledge and superior understanding can, in fact, cause hubris or blind spots that impair the source’s judgment. Putting too much stock in one’s expertise gives them power to deceive or mislead others if they are motivated by a hidden agenda or unduly influenced by their own beliefs and biases. 

To determine if a source is trustworthy, look more closely at the source’s motives, patterns, history, affiliations, and track record. Take time to gauge whether or not they’ve been consistent in their positions and conclusions. Scrutinize their transparency about their processes, ideologies, and any incentives that could cause them to position their expertise in a way that is not exactly accurate. 

In legal battles, the interplay between expertise and trustworthiness is evident in the way attorneys position an expert witness. The attorney who brings in the expert touts that witness’s credentials and makes sure the jury understands why this person is considered an expert. The opposing attorney works to undermine the witness’s trustworthiness by asking questions like “How much are you getting paid to be here today and offer your opinion?”  

Does the source display dynamism? Are they energetic or engaging in some way that draws us in or makes us feel confident in them? 

Front-of-the-house staff in most fine dining restaurants are affable and trained to put diners at ease. They engage us with their warmth and hospitality, and we appreciate the dining experience because they enhance it with their dynamism.

Dynamism may play a bigger role than you realize in influencing which sources you view as credible. How we say something may be as important as what we say.

In fact, no matter how much expertise and trustworthiness a source may have, we simply won’t pay attention to the source if they are boring, “talking over our heads,” or unable to make the information they share relevant and interesting to us. 

There’s a risk of prioritizing one component of credibility above the others, and it’s often dynamism that we respond to first and most. We’re all susceptible to cons and gaslighting when we respond to dynamism alone. Charismatic figures throughout history have led the masses astray by preying on those who minimize the importance of expertise and trustworthiness when evaluating the credibility of those dynamic figures. 

Protect Your Own Credibility by Scrutinizing All 3 Components of Source Credibility

When we allow ourselves to be swayed by one component of source credibility and fail to consider the other components, we’re prone to making poor decisions.

One way this commonly happens is when people respond emotionally to dynamism without evaluating expertise and trustworthiness. Marketing campaigns featuring influencers or celebrities bank on this response – we’re engaged by the celebrity and never pause to ask simple questions like “what expertise does this celebrity really have in this field?” or “if this influencer is being paid to say this, can I truly trust what they’re saying?”

Here are 7 questions to consider asking yourself before deeming any source a credible one.

  1. Does the source name their own sources? Modern media more frequently cited “unnamed sources” who later turn out to be compromised, fabricated, or unfindable. Just like you will have to justify the validity of your sources if your conclusions or decisions are faulty, media should also be held accountable for the veracity and credibility of their sources. 
  2. Does the source transparently and completely share the methodology behind their analysis? “Trust the science” has become a catch phrase that implies we shouldn’t look closer or question findings. The reason science is trustworthy is that it is a process of hypothesis > testing > data collection > analysis > proven findings that can be consistently replicated. Positioning untested hypotheses as science is irresponsible. Sources that do this are not to be trusted. 
  3. Does the source use these dead-giveaway words? Absolutes like “always,” “never,” “all,” and “every” are generally exaggerations. Exceptions exist more often than not. Absolutes are intended to persuade people vs. reporting information. Using them conveys a lack of objectivity and an agenda. Oftentimes, this is a form of bandwagon propaganda. It’s meant to compel action by making people feel they’ll be “left out” if they don’t go along with the crowd.
  4. Does the source provide unedited content? Or have they packaged the quote, excerpt, or snippet in a way that may be out of context or misleading? If the source tells the story instead of showing you the video, chances are that there’s something that’s been misconstrued. This may not be intentional. People filter, without realizing they’re doing it, based on their own perceptions and preferences. But wouldn’t you rather be allowed to interpret it for yourself?  
  5. Does the source give you both sides so you can make up your own mind? Teachers who focus on teaching students how to think vs. teachers who tell students what to think are a good example of this distinction. This can be seen in many other sources, too. Opinions and advocacy are poor substitutes for genuine, objective reporting of the facts. Sadly, many have become conditioned to accept others’ conclusions without even knowing the facts behind those conclusions. Don’t abdicate your responsibility to verify and fully understand before acting.
  6. Does the source use clickbait headlines and sensational leads? Attention-getting ploys are a red flag. Sources that use these tactics are more interested in viewer counts than in disseminating credible content. Monetization of YouTube videos, SEO rewards for clickthroughs, and linking advertising prices to circulation all incentivize media outlets to focus on something other than providing solid, reliable information. 
  7. Does the source appeal to emotions vs. reason? News isn’t supposed to entertainment. The sob sisters of the early 1900s popularized sensationalism at a time when yellow journalism was all the rage for getting newspapers sold. We’re in a new era of yellow journalism where it’s more common to see outrageous claims, exaggerations, catastrophizing, frightening predictions, and retelling of outright fiction. The new sob sisters can be seen every day on news programs that seek out tragedies and present them as warnings to us all. If you’re experiencing an emotional reaction to a news story, peel it back. What are the actual facts? Is what happened to the one person told in a way that’s rational or emotional? Are the dire warnings sensationalized? Was the purpose of the story to scare you, trigger your emotions, or convince you about something? If so, that’s not news. Proceed with caution. 

Of course, these seven questions can also be guidelines for presenting information in ways that won’t compromise your leadership credibility, too.  

In the coming weeks, here in the CONNECT2Lead Blog, we’ll look more specifically at objectivity, unconscious biases that influence our ability to be discerning, questioning skills for leaders, and the telltale signs of information manipulation.

You can also check out our video series on critical thinking!

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