How Leaders Increase Perceptions of Competence and Trustworthiness

Topic(s): leadership, performance
Publication: MIT Sloan Management Review, 2018
Article: Why People Believe in Their Leaders- or Not: Credibility Hinges on Perceptions of Competence and Trustworthiness.
Authors: D. Han Ming Chng, T. Kim, B. Gilbreath, L. Andersson
Reviewed by: Dr. Diana Walker

Living in an age where one’s credibility is continuously tested, questioned, and investigated, it is imperative that leaders know how they are being perceived. Research has identified that both competence and trustworthiness are critical characteristics that leaders must possess. Without these characteristics, leaders will struggle to cultivate a cooperative, collaborative workforce, resulting in a higher risk of organizational crises occurring. Showing appreciation for the people of the organization and knowing the pulse of the organization’s operations are additional important traits for leaders. This research (Chng, Kim, Gilbreath, & Andersson, 2018) aims to offer concrete actions that leaders can take to improve perceptions of their competence and trustworthiness.      


Based on findings from the surveyed group (145 respondents who were employees in a U.S service-industry organization or evening MBA students) the researchers determined that leaders are perceived as competent when they do two things. First, they effectively communicate the future of the organization. And second, they continually grow themselves—as well as the people they lead—through learning and action. Effective communication is knowing what needs to be communicated, why it is being communicated, and how the content of the communication affects the people of the organization. The same can be said with perceived trustworthiness. Leaders who clearly define the vision of the organization and collaborate with those doing the work will bring the vision to fruition.


What leads to a breakdown of credibility? The respondents in this study said that lack of knowledge was the top contributor to perceived incompetence, and unethical behavior was the top contributor to perceived untrustworthiness. Breakdowns can happen when a leader is not able to handle job responsibilities, answer questions in regard to the organization, and problem solve. Such incompetence can cause confusion, chaos, and even catastrophic events. As for perceived untrustworthiness, misappropriating resources, falsifying data, and participating in any form of harassment are all recognized as unethical behavior. Additionally, leaders who manipulate policies and procedures to favor a few and discriminate against the majority are also considered untrustworthy. These actions quickly deteriorate trust and lead to a work environment lacking in equality and respect.


This research study has important implications for leaders. By following the actionable steps outlined above, leaders can improve perceptions of their competence and trustworthiness. This approach stands to make leaders more effective in their roles, and ultimately provide organizations with a competitive advantage.


Han Ming Chng, D., Kim, T., Gilbreath, B., Andersson, L. (2018). Why People Believe in Their Leaders- or Not:Credibility hinges on perceptions of competence and trustworthiness. MIT Sloan Management Review, 60(1), 65-70.