Getting Credit or Getting Stiffed

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In a recent classroom exercise, Ellen was putting the last piece in the puzzle, when Allen took the bright cardboard piece from her hand and put it in place, smiling at his contribution to solving the puzzle.

This scenario, in many variations, is played out in groups and organizations daily. We might call it the “Credit Game.”

In one version of the Credit Game, Chris voices a great idea, but Sam gets credit for it. Sometimes the one who gets credit actually “steals” the idea, modifies it, and claims it as his own. More often the one giving credit just mistakenly gives credit to the wrong person.

In another more subtle variation of the Credit Game, John makes a statement in a meeting and later someone says, “as Bob said . . . ,” and then repeats John’s comment. In this case, there’s no deliberate theft involved; the one giving credit just mistakenly gives credit to the wrong person.

Why would that happen and what should we do about it? And does it matter?

To answer the last question first, emphatically “Yes,” it does matter. Credit is one of the central currencies in organizations, and often makes all the difference in raises, promotions, and general “standing” in the organization. Typically, it makes little difference whether there is evidence to back up the attribution of credit, credit exists in the more important world of perception. The one who gets credit benefits, the one who should have gotten credit gets “stiffed.”

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In cases of outright theft, as in Allen’s placement of the puzzle piece, there is clear injustice. This is an ethical issue. People shouldn’t steal the ideas of others and managers should be attentive to the possible misappropriation of ideas. The manager should be sure to give credit to the one to whom credit is due.

Someone getting credit for an idea after building on someone else’s original idea presents a more complex problem and raises the question of whether credit should actually go to individuals or teams. Good ideas are rarely fully “hatched” by one person; they are the result of conversation, experimentation, building on and refining ideas, and collaboration. We say we value teams and teamwork, but most performance management systems continue to focus on and give credit to the performance of individuals. Still, it’s incumbent on the manager to be accurate about her attribution of credit, whether to an individual or a group.

But what about the case in which the manager (or a colleague) simply attributes an idea or a helpful comment in a meeting to the wrong person? This really gets complex. To be honest, sometimes we simply don’t remember who said what in a meeting and attribute the comment to the wrong person. But what if our memory is selective, clouded by other considerations, like gender or race or culture?

There is considerable evidence that women’s voices are often not “heard” by male (and even female) managers and colleagues. That’s again an injustice, an ethical issue, and should be addressed in organizations as in the society generally. There’s probably no more obvious case in today’s organizations of the wrong person (or people) getting credit than this. And it’s not just a women’s issue; it’s also incumbent on male managers and leaders to take up this cause as well.

Similarly, race and culture may enter into the mix. People from different cultures express ideas in different ways. And they are “heard” in different ways by others. Obviously, sensitivity to differences can assure that the benefits of diversity – the bringing together of many viewpoints and ideas – are not lost in the babel of differences.

Finally, there are variations in the way ideas presented. Often a sense of “presence,” a strong voice, even “leaning in” (male or female) will make a difference in what (or who) the manager (or others) attend to and give credit to. Managers should be attentive to the way different people present their ideas and not let “style” become more important than “substance.”

And for the victim, the one who got “stiffed,” what options are there? Unfortunately, not many. You can try to present your side of the story to management, but that’s hard to do without appearing either whiny or egotistical. You can work on your presentation skills to make even your most limited comments memorable (a little story-telling can go a long way here).

But these suggestions will only slightly improve your chances. Maybe the best strategy is to continue to voice your good ideas. Sooner or later, people will start listening! And you will get the credit you deserve!

Games People Play

7O6A3462When people talk about their managers and co-workers playing games at the office, they usually aren’t talking about Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, Monopoly, or Scrabble. They are instead talking about people engaging in excessively political behavior, managing by deception and misdirection, and stretching the limits of the truth on a daily basis. We’ll call them the “Gamers.”

Those people complaining about the Gamers usually describe themselves (and the folks they want everyone else to be) as honest and authentic, open and transparent, and absolutely consistent from day to day. They want their managers and co-workers to be “real.” So we’ll call them the “Real People.”

Unfortunately, the distinction the Real People make between themselves and the Gamers isn’t quite as clear as they would like. While there are some Gamers with malicious intent, most are people simply caught in a web of behavioral complexity.

They are subject to different and changing influences from moment to moment causing them to change their positions from time to time – and in many cases that’s a perfectly healthy thing to do. They also live in a rapidly changing world, so that their truth expressed at one point may be outdated (and false) within minutes.

Finally, the Gamers live, as we all do, in a world where perceptions make a huge difference, and the Real perception of the Gamers is, of course, filtered by the Real People’s own preferences and beliefs and self-interests. (Not surprisingly, then, many Gamers see themselves as Real People and see others as Gamers – and vice versa.)

Having said that, let’s agree that some people appear to play games more often and with more intensity than others. And, in the eyes of the Real People, there’s nothing more maddening than seeing the Gamers succeed where their own Real work should have prevailed.

So we come to the question: how can the Real People compete in a world full of Gamers? I think that, in the long run, being Real will always give one an edge over the Gamers. But that’s hard to see in the intensity of the moment and you have to work at being Real – you can’t just proclaim it and expect it to carry the day. Here are some things to think about.

One, complaining about the Gamers may be cathartic as you talk among family and close friends, but don’t take those complaints back to work with you. Gamers will beat you every time at the “I can complain more about you than you can about me” game. Don’t give them the match to start that fire. You’ll get burned.

Two, remember, others are writing the book about you and writing that book based on their perceptions. And it doesn’t matter whether those perceptions are based on rumors or fact, they are in the book. For you to at least make the book a little autobiographical you have to get your own story out.

Three, to do so, think carefully about the story or the “narrative” you want to tell. Do you want to been seen as the abused victim of constant political manipulation? (Definitely not. See number one above.) Wouldn’t you rather tell this story: his work and even his motives were questioned, but he stayed true to his commitment to getting the work done through building relationships across the organization and a sense of teamwork and commitment in his immediate workgroup? Or how about this story: though she was passed over for a promotion, she continued to work hard and contribute unselfishly to the mission of her team?

Four, follow the principle of “Do good things and let others know you are doing good things.” Tell a part of your story anywhere you can – though never case it as your personal story, put it in terms of the team, the work group, or the organization. If people think those groups are doing remarkable work, they will think the same of you.

Five, there’s a thin line between telling your story with confidence and indulging your ego. Careful self-reflection and self-critique, bolstered by honest feedback from those around you, can keep you grounded and “Real.” It will be tempting to play games yourself, but that’s your ego talking. Put that aside and go about the Real work.