There’s nothing more infuriating than someone taking credit for your work. We’ve all had this happen at one point or another: you share an idea with a colleague and then hear him repeat it in a meeting; you stay late to finish a presentation yet your team member accepts all the praise; you lead a long overdue project to completion and your boss tells the higher-ups it was his doing. How should you handle these situations? Is it okay to speak up right then and there? Or should you keep quiet? And how can you make sure that you get the credit you deserve in the future?
What the Experts Say
We want to believe that our work speaks for itself. But “in the real world, it matters who gets credit,” says Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. “That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments.” And you can’t assume that people will notice the time and effort you put in, says Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the HBR article, “Make Your Enemies Your Allies.” “With collaborative work, it’s not always clear who has done what,” he says, which leaves the door open for a colleague to take undue credit. Here’s what to do when someone tries to claim your work or ideas as their own.
Take time to calm down
You may be tempted to call the person out right away, but Uzzi says this is a “big, big mistake.” There is no sense in making a scene in a meeting or confronting your colleague in the hallway. “You look petulant, like a kid who’s folded her arms and is pouting,” says Dillon. Plus “if you’re emotionally piqued at being ripped off, it’s not the time to talk about it. Neurologically your mind is not working at its best and you may get out-argued,” says Uzzi. Take a day or two to calm down. But don’t stew about it for so long that, by the time you talk to the person, you’re ready to explode. You also want to make sure the incident is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Assess the severity of the situation
“Most people jump to conclusions and think right away: ‘They’re trying to make me look bad’ or ‘They’re only interested in making themselves look good,’” explains Dillon. But more often than not it’s just an oversight. “I see it with my students all the time,” says Uzzi. “During a presentation they intend to say ‘we’ but then under pressure, they freeze and end up using ‘I’ the whole time.” Consider the possibility that your credit-stealing colleague’s behavior might be unintentional. Or it might not be as egregious as you initially thought. Perhaps you remember that your boss did mention your name a few times during the presentation or recognize that your colleague was combining your brilliant idea with his. Uzzi suggests writing down what you would say to the person if you were to talk to her. Let that sit and then go back and look at it again. Ask yourself: How much does this really matter? Will it negatively impact my career? Not every piece of work has to have your name on it and managers often take credit for the work of their subordinates. “Making your boss shine is part of the gig,” Dillon explains. “You may not get credit for the idea or for slaving over the analysis, but hopefully your boss absorbs that you’re an important part of her team.”
Instead of making accusations, ask questions. This shifts the burden of proof to your colleague: he has to explain why he felt justified taking credit for the project or idea. “Research shows that it’s much better to ask why it happened than to make a claim,” says Uzzi. You say something like: How did you feel the presentation went? Did you feel like you were able to hit all the main points? Some might see this strategy as passive-aggressive but it will give your colleague an opportunity to recognize his mistake. If that doesn’t happen, you can say something along the lines of: I noticed that when you talked about the project you said “I” instead of “we.” Was that intentional? Why did you present it that way? Dillon says that your goal isn’t to pin blame but to “show them that you noticed and that you didn’t think it was right.”
Remedy the situation
If the credit-stealer acknowledges his mistake, talk about how you can make things right. Perhaps he can email the group thanking you for your contributions, or you can both go talk to your manager to set the record straight. Even if he’s not willing to do anything, you can take action. Use any opportunity to demonstrate your involvement with the project. “Whenever the project or idea is talked about — in person or via email — chime in with details or answers,” says Dillon, to prove your knowledge. And consider asking others for help. It can be uncomfortable to toot your own horn so find a third person who understands your contributions and can speak on your behalf in a meeting or when the project comes up in conversation. You might approach your colleague and say: I worked really hard on this report but sometimes find it hard to promote my own work. I would appreciate it if you asked me questions about it at the meeting. Then, in the meeting, this person can ask you and your colleague questions, such as: “When you two were thinking about these ideas, how did you approach this issue?” “This provides others with social proof of your work,” says Uzzi. “It plants in everybody’s mind who was actually responsible.”
When the problem doesn’t go away
If none of the above works and you feel like you’re being systematically undermined by the credit-stealer, Dillon suggests talking to your boss or another manager who has the ability to do something about it. Be careful not to come off as a complainer, she warns. Frame it as an effort to create a good working relationship, not a way to badmouth your colleague. “Your boss wants you to be able to work well together. She isn’t going to want to come in and separate the children.”
Be proactive about preventing it next time
Uzzi’s research shows that in collaborative projects, it’s important to agree upfront on how credit will be allocated. Who will present these ideas to the senior team? Who will field questions? Who will send the email to the rest of the company? “At the same time, people need to be able to revisit these agreements if the expected proportion of contributions changes,” says Uzzi, so be flexible. Dillon suggests creating a chart of who’s going to do what. “Write it down and keep it in an email,” she says.
Model good credit sharing
If you’re generous and intentional about sharing credit, others are likely to follow suit. Never hesitate to ask your team: What’s the best way to make sure all of our work is recognized? Uzzi says that he used to add a slide at the end of his presentations with the name of everyone who had contributed to the research. “But I was rushed, and didn’t always get to the last slide,” he says. Now he gives his collaborators the deck beforehand and asks, “What do you think? Does it give appropriate credit?” At the same time, don’t go overboard and thank everyone who worked on any little part of the project. In an attempt to cover everybody, you devalue the contribution. Focus your recognition on the people who truly deserve it.
Principles to Remember
- Give yourself time to calm down and assess the situation
- Be clear about your contributions whenever you get an opportunity
- Ask colleagues to mention your name when the idea or project comes up in conversation
- Feel like you need to get credit for every single thing you do
- Presume that the person had malicious intentions — credit stealing is often an accident
- Make any accusations — instead ask the person questions to try to figure out why it happened
Case study#1: Make your contributions visible
Kyle Simmons* split his time between his infantry unit and its human resources department. Part of his job was to review draft assessments for all senior leaders in his formation. While looking over the paperwork, he noticed this his commanding officer had taken credit for one of his ideas. Kyle had developed a time-saving report for teams to document their work, which fulfilled a formal requirement from senior commanders. The report “helped us avoid duplicating efforts,” Kyle explains. This was noted as an accomplishment on the CO’s annual assessment, but “I was given no such credit on my review,” Kyle says.
He sat on this information for a few days, but after thinking it through, he decided he should speak up for himself. Kyle went to the CO and asked why he’d taken credit for the reporting change. The CO seemed a bit taken aback, but mostly “he was indifferent and acted like it didn’t matter who got the credit,” he says. Kyle found the response odd since the CO “ was always quick to ensure people knew what he did [and] became quite petulant if he didn’t get credit for his efforts.”
From that point on, Kyle made sure to CC others when he responded to this CO’s requests for input. “And if it was a project that included units beyond my own, I BCC’d superiors I knew in the chain of command,” he explains. “I had to protect my contributions.” This nipped the behavior in the bud because the CO could no longer take credit when others knew better.
Kyle treats his own subordinates differently as a result of this experience. “It is amazing to see how engaged people become when they are recognized,” he says.
Case study #2: Enlist others who can stand up for you
Owen Collins* is the director of the English department of a small New England college, where he also teaches. After the birth of his second child, he decided to take a semester’s paternity leave. Although he and his boss had hoped to delay an important departmental review until his return, it couldn’t be put off and so it fell to the professor who was filling in for Owen, we’ll call her Clarissa. “She called me completely stressed out,” he recalls. So he spent several hours on the phone with her explaining what needed to be done and agreeing to help. “On the call, I signed up to do three-quarters of the work but I could tell right away that there were going to be problems with who would get credit for what,” he explains. She wanted everything to go through her and “was already saying things like ‘my report’ and ‘all the legwork Ineed to get done.’”
Owen suggested that he and other people working on the report meet in person to go over the review before handing it in to the department chair. When they did, Clarissa began by “representing the drafts as hers.” But Owen took every opportunity to demonstrate his critical contributions, fielding questions and providing key information. “I didn’t want to accuse her because I knew she would get defensive but it was clear to everyone in the room that I had done the lion share of the work,” he says.
Clarissa seemed to recognize that she needed to share credit for the review, and Owen knew that, although he couldn’t attend the meeting where the team formally presented it to the department chair, he now had allies who would speak up on his behalf.
*names and details have been changed
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