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!

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