On being … credible

By Ingrid Sapona

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon touring wine country with Ellen (not her real name), a woman I met at a professional meeting a couple months ago. We both do plain language writing and editing and we both work for ourselves. When I was given a couple tickets to a wine tasting, I asked Ellen if she’d like to join me. She said yes and we ended up making a day of it.

Because we didn’t know each other too well, the conversation was quite freewheeling. We talked about our experiences growing up, our families, and, of course, our work. Indeed, since we’re in the same field, we talked a lot about the business challenges we face and compared notes about how we deal with them.

At some point during the course of the afternoon, I noticed that I used the word “credibility” a lot. I honestly don’t remember all the different contexts in which I used the word that day, but I was surprised at how often I said it. So much so, in fact, I began to feel self-conscious. Am I overly concerned about “establishing credibility”? Is my seeming obsession with credibility a reflection of insecurity, or is it just a skill I’m constantly working on because I think it’s key to building a successful business? If Ellen thought there was anything abnormal about my focus on it, she was kind enough not to let on.

Flash forward a few weeks to a series of meetings I had with the key players on a project team at a client. They were telling me about a crisis they’re in the middle of on an important project that has a variety of pieces that have to fall into place. The folks on the project are all highly skilled, talented, experienced, and hard working.

They shared with me notes about the project timelines and copies of various status reports the team has given to management. The crisis came about because a couple of the sub-groups working on the project are late with their deliverables. So, though the team’s original timelines were generous, due to circumstances beyond their control, the cushion they had built into the project has disappeared. In fact, the most recent reports make it clear that there’s no wiggle room left. From here on, pretty much any delay in any deliverable from any of the sub-groups jeopardizes the whole project.

In reviewing the project team’s reports to management, I was impressed by their open description of the problems they were encountering and their thoroughness in outlining the ramifications to the organization’s future in the event of failure. The team did their best to report what was happening on each piece of the project and they didn’t sugar coat their reports.

But, in reading the various reports, one thing that struck me was that the team didn’t think about the credibility gap they were creating when they repeatedly said, “we should know by next week”, or how bad it looked when weeks passed with no resolution of things they said would be resolved within “a week or two”. To me, that kind of loose talk undermined their credibility.

Indeed, management’s faith in the team has wavered and last week they brought in a consultant to review the team’s work. The team leads were shocked and hurt, especially when they realized that the review isn’t just of this project. It’s clear that their credibility with management has been severely impaired and now all their actions and decisions are under the microscope.

To their credit, despite feeling hurt by management’s actions, the team remains dedicated to seeing the project to completion while also working with the consultant to prove they’ve done nothing wrong. From what I’ve seen and read, I think the project will ultimately be a success and I think the team will be found to have been honest and above board in all their actions. I think the lesson to be learned from the whole situation boils down to credibility. And, even if all goes well (as I hope it does), I think the team will have to work hard to re-establish their credibility with management – and going forward they’ll have to be more diligent about maintaining it.

Reflecting on the situation the project team finds itself in with regard to its relationship with management – and my conversation with Ellen – I realize I really am obsessed with credibility. But you know what? Now I don’t think that’s anything to be embarrassed about…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


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