Paradox: Our quest for credibility reduces the quality of work

This argument about to be laid out might confuse a couple of people semantically, so let me say this up front: obviously, credibility — and similar notions, such as your reputation — are tremendously important to capturing and retaining business. I would think we all know that. The argument here won’t be that credibility is a bad thing. No. Credibility is a good thing.

But the quest for credibility is another story.

Let’s start here

Interesting article from Northwestern on “when to pick the not-best candidate” for a job. Their reasoning mostly resides in this section:

In the model, a firm’s credibility—and thus its ability to motivate excellent performance—comes from rewarding past successes, regardless of whether a given employer or supplier is the best choice for new work moving forward.

“If I’m a worker and I know that Dan is not going to promote me even if I do a good job because of someone else who would be a better fit for that position, then I’m not going to do a good job,” says Powell.

This is about informal incentive structures, essentially. If someone keeps working hard and never gets promoted — or the company keeps hiring external candidates for roles the high-performer could do — then eventually the high-performer will either (a) stop caring or (b) leave. In reality, they will stop caring for 16 months as they look for a job, then leave — so you basically just screwed the pooch on five quarters from a high-performer because your informal incentive structures make no sense. But because that can’t be tracked on a balance sheet, no one cares.

OK, now onto the next stage of this argument.

Credibility and relevance

A couple of different studies over the past few years have shown that people predominantly want a few things out of work:

All pretty logical — and all three concepts are connected. You could add “to be seen as credible” above and it would fit right in there. So now we’re talking about the quest for credibility.

Also please remember: work is extremely tied to notions of self-worth, especially in workaholic males. If your job isn’t at least somewhat a quest for credibility, does that mean you lack self-worth? It very well might.

The quest for credibility in action: Selecting managers

This Northwestern article makes this point: let’s say you’ve got two guys, A and B. A has been with the company 14 years but is mostly middling and terrible. B has been there only 2 years but is good and respected.

When a promotion comes up that A/B could both qualify for, many companies give it to A. This has huge repercussions — he’s probably deeply in the pockets of the pre-existing power core due to lengthy tenure (i.e. one reason he got promoted), and his promotion means those now under him will hate their work lives. B would have been better. So why was A promoted?

These reasons:

  • The company wants to establish credibility that hard work and tenure matter
  • The execs know the promotion doesn’t matter so it’s a good place to stash A for a few years
  • A is a total “We’ve always done it this way” guy and B might rock the boat a bit too much for the liking of the true decision-makers

The second and third bullets are real reasons, for sure, but the first bullet will always be the stated one. So right there, we have a problem. “Quest for credibility” = promotion and hiring of unfit managers.

Some other problems with the quest for credibility

Process: The simplest explanation of process is “I want to appear credible with my boss or external partners, so I am going to jam up every step of accomplishing something to make sure I have control of it.” Quest for credibility. In reality this creates “process for the sake of process,” but that’s so normative at most companies now that no one even notices.

Micromanagement: Please see above.

Hiring: Many hiring processes need to be managed in a place of credibility around diversity check marks (valid), financial repercussions (not going over a set number), and claiming a variety of things that, in reality, no one cares about. But HR as a department is one of the greatest “quest for credibility” stories out there. So they try to make it data-driven. That flops because human subjectivity will always win a 12-round fight with data. Then they try to prove its credibility in other ways. As all this is happening internally, no one is following up with candidates externally, creating true job descriptions, or working with hiring managers on what exactly the job role needs to be. So the important, quality work falls through the cracks so that HR can prove how credible they are to execs who long since stopped caring. Nice little cycle.

Brown-nosing: Should go without saying.

Taking on more work: Because everyone wants to be seen as credible with their boss, managers end up heaping more work on those who seem competent. This is the high performer curse. It is a firstborn child of the quest for credibility.

“Look at me, I did this:” Ever work with someone who constantly discusses their accomplishments, even if one of the more recent was opening their office door successfully, or logging onto the system in the morning? “Look at me, I did this work” is all about the quest for credibility and relevance in an office.

How execs behave: They’re guilty of all this too.

Will we ever improve this?

No. It’s too rooted in the human experience to want to be seen as good and credible.

But we can make organizations better in large part by clarifying incentive structures and making them more formal and less informal. This is largely what I mean when I say “bonus pay is ripping America apart.” We all should know by now that advanced capitalism is designed to funnel money towards a very few, yes. It’s not a “rigged” system; it’s just a system. But when incentive structures are obvious but lip-serviced in meetings, that helps no one. Then everyone just starts chasing credibility because they think it’s the proper pathway to the extra money, and they construct “My boss will think I’m credible” as “Let me create a 37-step process for uploading documents.”

See how credibility begins to undermine the actual quality of work, then?

Ted Bauer

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