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.
” To really succeed at the office, you not only need to do the work, you need to make sure your name is included in the credits “
Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting and the unthinkable happens: a colleague claims credit for your work.
As you reel from the shock of what just occurred, your self-talk goes into overdrive. “How dare they. The audacity!” you say to yourself as you start to play out the consequences in your mind. “What does the rest of the team suppose my role was? Making the coffee?”
But in the time it takes to come to grips with what just happened, something even more critical occurs: The moment passes. The team moves on to a new topic. The time for speaking up and publicly correcting the “mistake” has passed. Everyone “knows” who owned the accomplishment, and it’s not you.
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
Prevent it from happening again
There’s really only one sure-fire method of preventing this from happening, and it is to pre-emptively, publicly, claim credit for everything you do.
Publicly claiming credit for the work you do, also known as “tooting your own horn” is not comfortable for most people.
But consider the consequences: Unscrupulous colleagues can seize the opportunity to claim credit, because you’d left it sitting on the table as though it was there for the taking.
” Just don’t overdo it “
There’s a sweet spot between keeping your colleagues informed of your contributions and bragging about them. If you tend to be too timid and shy you probably find it hard to share your accomplishments, which leaves the door ajar for someone else to take credit. Practice working your accomplishments into conversations.
Consistently make people aware in a subtle way of the accomplishments you are making.
Project yourself as an authority and someone in the know. Invest some time into doing research on topics and themes that are relevant to what your team or department are working on. Then, try and work this knowledge into conversations as naturally as possible.
In theory, doing this consistently should shut down the likelihood of a colleague claiming credit, but of course in the real world, one might still slip through! If so, how should you respond?
Mentors and bosses shared these ideas in team meetings. Initially, I was thrilled—my ideas must be solid! But that elation lasted for only a few moments before I quickly realized that my proposal wasn’t being shared—it was being hijacked. What’s more, even if I had spoken up, no one would ever believe the idea was mine after a more senior member of the team had mentioned it first.
Next time I had a great idea brewing, I thought through it, planned it out as if I already had buy-in from the group, and piped up to present it at the next team meeting.
Since I first shared it in a public forum, everyone was aware that the idea was mine.
Seek out projects you can own.
Don’t worry if a project is big or small, the point is, you want to build up a set of projects that have your name on them. They key is that you’re the one in charge.
Keep a Few Tricks Up Your Sleeve
Sometimes, sharing your genius plans in a public forum isn’t always possible, so you’ll have to find other ways to brand your ideas as your own.
For every project going forward, I proceeded just as I had before, but I also did a bit of extra research. When the presentation rolled around, I had anecdotes and additional data that wasn’t included in my boss’ speech—and I offered them up during the meeting. By being over-prepared and anticipating additional questions, I came across as an expert on the topic, without making my boss look bad.
If You Do Get F**ked
Step 1: Immediately set the record straight
Whatever you do, don’t let the moment pass. It is important to speak up immediately, even if this means interrupting or speaking over the top of someone.
If you feel flustered, try not to let it show. Smile, and aim to speak with warmth and authority in equal measure, and say “To clear up any misunderstanding, what Kevin is trying to explain is that we collaborated on this effort. He led the initial data gathering, while I devised the methodology and performed the analysis. ” Smile one more time, and then shut up.
Step 2: Follow up in private
Later, but not too much later, with your trademark mix of warmth and authority, approach Kevin privately and ask if this is a good time to discuss what happened.
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.”
Step 3: Repeat
With that, the matter should be settled. But just in case it ever happens again, be on the alert and ready to speak up, firstly in public and then later in private, whenever someone else claims credit for your work, Kevin’s work or that of another colleague.
Close the conversation by thanking him for understanding and adding anything else you’d like to say to ensure there are no hard feelings.
Step 4: 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.”
Know When to Let it Go
You’re not going to get it for everything you do. That’s just part of the job, and it’s part of being on a team.
Save your credit-earning strength for important projects and you’ll help establish yourself as not only an outstanding individual contributor, but a strong team player as well.
Whether you get permission to use audio recordings or just keep a good stash of notes and emails, create a record of what was said and assigned. If it’s appropriate, use CCs or give file permissions to specific leaders/team members, including senior level workers you want to be aware of what you can do.
Talk about your work.
Make general references to your work to colleagues, ideally to more than one person at a time. You also can note progress or mention what you’re up to in broad terms on social media channels, especially LinkedIn where the professional ramifications of being found out arguably are harsher for your boss. The more you reference the project or are open about your ideas within the bounds of confidentiality requirements, the harder it will become for the boss to get others to believe you were just on the sidelines or not involved.
One trick here is to set yourself up to be an information source. For example, tell others they can come to you with questions about the work. If there are details about the work your boss can’t provide when asked, politely offer the information to the person making the inquiry. You’re not trying to make your boss look unprepared or incompetent here, and in fact, you can still reference your boss well as you answer. Rather, the objective is to show that you have undeniable expertise that only someone closely connected to the job could have.
Reframe your language.
Since you don’t necessarily want to humiliate your boss in public, praise or agree with them about the project in front of others. Then slip in your own “I” or “we” statements, such as “I’m so glad I was able to be part of this and take care of x on it!”, “I’m really honored/flattered you decided to go through with my idea”, or “We definitely worked hard together on this!” Your boss will have to acknowledge these statements of inclusion, but at the same time, you’re not saying a single bad thing about them.
Take a break.
Emotions can fire hot when you believe your boss has betrayed you. Take a few hours or even a full day to reevaluate your evidence. Because this has the potential to affect your career, make sure you’re taking the next steps based on logic and fact, not on spur-of-the-moment feelings.
Confront your boss.
Remember here, sometimes a boss doesn’t even realize they’re hogging the glory–sometimes they just think they’re accepting accolades as they naturally should as the team leader on behalf of everyone involved. And sometimes nerves can get the best of even seasoned pros, with “I” becoming unintentionally dominant. Have a private discussion with your boss to make your offense clear. Say what you observed (e.g., “I noticed that…”) and ask if that’s what they meant to do. The golden rule is to investigate, not accuse.
Clarify expectations and policies.
Firmly but politely tell your boss what you expect and remind them of company protocols regarding intellectual property and credits. In many cases, knowing that you understand your rights and have a plan to handle repeated infractions–and, importantly, that you actually have the courage to use that plan–will deter an unscrupulous boss from additional poor behavior.
If your boss had an oversight or two they willingly try to correct, forgive and let go. But if the problem persists even after you let them know you see a problem, ask for advice from other senior level employees and/or your mentor. You also should notify HR, formally filing whatever paperwork the department requires. The senior employees/mentors are critical here, as they can verify your work ethic, conversations, etc.
Do work on the side.
We’re talking here about stretch projects, speaking engagements, ideas or hobbies you’re passionate about that can further demonstrate your expertise, and that aren’t necessarily completed under your boss’ eye. Make the projects and engagements as visible as you can without divulging sensitive information. They will demonstrate your capabilities, interests and potential like your regular work, and your boss can’t touch them. They’ll also help you build a bigger network of individuals who can vouch for you.
Bosses take credit for the work of others for all kinds of reasons, such as their own need for recognition or because they genuinely believe others will receive concepts better if their name is attached. Whatever their motivator, intentional theft of credit isn’t something you should tolerate. Use these strategies to rebuild your relationship or get the company to take corrective action.
Leaving your job because of a boss stealing credit should be a last resort. If you do, make it absolutely clear to HR in writing why you felt you had to go. If hiring managers ask why you left, respond honestly, but emphasize that values like fairness and cooperation matter to you, and focus on the fact that the situation has reaffirmed your positive sense of ethics and personal direction. You’ll look grounded and more trustworthy without badmouthing, which is a win-win for everyone.
Case Studies from Harvard Business Review
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 I need 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.