Stopping Theft at Work

She had dark circles under her eyes as she walked into the conference room. Not just Friday-morning dark circles, but major-product-launch dark circles. I asked her how she was doing. She was ready to explode with fury.

A key project was hitting a deadline, and a member of her team hadn’t been able to pull together this part of strategy with clarity. So she stepped in to make sure her organization delivered to the business unit. She stayed up through the wee hours creating the PowerPoint slides, even waking her husband at 2 a.m. to print some documents for a key 7 a.m. meeting. She got only a few hours of sleep and not enough coffee, but was proud of getting it done right. Then the business unit leader, her client, presented her plan on as his recommended direction. He never claimed credit, but never gave recognition either. Bottom line, she got no credit for some really good work. When I asked her what she said at the time, she replied, “Nothing! It should be obvious where that plan came from, and my performance should speak for itself.” Hmm. If that’s true, why was she sizzling?

During the last few months, I’ve worked with several teams where the issue of someone “stealing credit” keeps coming up. A lot of us operate under the assumption that “my performance speaks for itself” when it comes to managing up or out across our organizations. We tend to resent people who show more style than substance, and we want to avoid that behavior. We think actions should speak louder than words. When presenting our own work, we don’t dwell on how wonderful it is; the content stands on its own. That suits us.

However, that approach does not build our power in the organization, and power is a useful thing to have. Powerful people can improve lives and organizations. Without power, we let someone else own the agenda for where we go next. But power isn’t won simply by hard work and noble intentions.

It’s naive to assume your boss is automatically aware of your good work. You forget how many other things your boss and others are paying attention to. There is too much going on.

Failing to tell your own story of what is happening and then wondering why you don’t get appropriate credit is little like leaving a wad of cash on a picnic table while you wander off to feed the ducks. If someone else takes it, you could call it theft — the thief will just say, “Finders keepers.” Don’t make it easy for sticky fingers to take things that don’t belong to them. The issue isn’t whether you manage up and out. The only question is how to do it:

Give credit to the team. Make sure you don’t contribute to the credit-stealing problem by using the right pronoun when you share good news. A lot of group leads start a project update with “We did this, and we did that.” It’s even worse when they use “I,” as in “I did this awesome thing, and then I did this other wonderful thing.” Really? Is this ever effective? It strikes the listener as so self-serving (probably because it is), and gets their hackles up. Instead, try bragging with the pronoun “they” or referring to “the team.” As in, “The team did this and then they did that.” Say it that way even if you’re the head of the team. After all, you’re reporting on their behalf. “They” is better than “we” because it focuses attention on the group in a neutral way. The neutrality of the pronoun makes the content more credible. It lets you step out of the field and into a position of describing the plays.

Make the connection to the business. All good teams work hard and meet deadlines. That’s expected. Making a fuss about it just sounds like puffery. You get no extra credit for it, and frankly, it comes across as a little immature. But what does matter is the impact to the business. Provide context for why what you’re working on matters. It could sound like this:

  • “This is the one market the company has been chasing for three years and this product gives us the foothold we’ve been looking for.” Notice how this puts everyone at the company at the same side of the table.
  • “While the market is a tiny $1 million today, it has a growth rate of 45% and could soon provide significant contribution to our bottom line.” Notice how this is not overpromising, but pointing out the potential with a “could be” reason for pursuing it.
  • “We learned 3 things that will let us innovate faster on other projects, namely X, Y, and Z.” Notice the specificity of the lessons learned; most times, saying we “learned something” means “we didn’t achieve a goal,” so make sure to name the insights.

Choose your moments. There are two times to provide updates. (1) When people don’t expect it, but there’s something important to share. And, (2) after real stuff happens. If you are reporting something at the bi-annual status update meetings, you are one among many. If you make your announcement between those bi-annual meetings, that email (and its message) might get a lot more attention. The second and more meaningful time to announce something is when a milestone is met. This seems so natural, and yet is surprisingly rare. When prototypes are finished or projects are shipped, such communications are awesome and appropriate. I think about it this way: Most of the time, peacocks don’t spread their wings. They do it sometimes, though, and then boy do we notice.

Being good is not enough. You gotta tell others. If this is hard for you to accept, remember what Muhammad Ali said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” When someone else takes credit for our work, the reason it stings is because they’ve stolen a bit of our power. And we let them.

If that doesn’t quite sit right, maybe it’s because you think being powerful is a bad thing. Some do feel uncomfortable seeking power, perhaps worrying about creating jealousy among their peers, or even becoming a target. (Culturally, I’ve noticed that concern particularly with women.) That’s because of the old-school notion of power as “power over” someone, or the idea that power is a limited commodity to be fought over. If you gain power, then I must lose it. It’s a very Jeffrey Pfeffer view of power.

Can I share an alternative way of looking at power? Power doesn’t have to be about dominance over others; it can be the capacity to create constructive outcomes. Wouldn’t it be better if your organization had more powerful people? That is what I call title-less power. Wouldn’t that make your organization as a whole more powerful? If you think about it that way, you’re more likely to own your power, and use it to get good things done. And, I’m sure you’ll agree, we all need more people owning their power… because there are a lot of problems in this world that need solving.


(Note: This was originally published by Harvard Business Review, May, 2011. Please contribute any comments to these ideas at the original post:

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