Virtually everyone has experienced or witnessed instances in which credit was assigned in an unfair manner: managers unabashedly took credit for the work of their invisible hard-working staff; quiet performers were inadequately recognized for their contributions; credit was assigned to the wrong individuals and for the wrong things.
If a company reliably assigns credit to deserving individuals and teams, the resulting belief that the system is fair and will honestly reward contributions will encourage employees to give their utmost. On the other hand, if credit is regularly misassigned, a sort of organizational cancer emerges, and individuals and teams won’t feel the drive to deliver their best because they won’t trust anyone will recognize it if they do.
From my experiences leading teams in government, academia, clinical medicine, and the private sector, I have evolved a set of rules to help manage some of the issues with the assignment of credit. These rules are my own and don’t reflect any official policies of the organizations where I’ve worked.
Keep people honest. It is important to demand that individuals be honest about their true contributions to projects and initiatives. And their claims should be cross-checked. Individuals whose careers developed in organizations where they had to fend for themselves will often err on the side of overstating their contributions. A star performer on one team that I led was often taking more than her share of credit and it was rubbing her colleagues the wrong way. When I drilled into the root cause, I discovered it was bad behavior she learned in her previous job, where unabashed self-promotion was required to rise. Guiding her to be honest about her true contributions and to highlight the contributions of others sent a strong message about our organizational culture.
Recognize those who recognize others. In addition to verifying individual accomplishments, there is a lot of value in recognizing and highlighting cases when individuals take the time to recognize others. It sends a signal that generous and honest attribution of credit is something that the organization values. Early in one of my jobs, I took a few moments to send e-mails to thank individuals who had helped make a project of mine successful and copied my boss. My boss, in turn,scheduled time with me to thank me for taking the time to recognize others. In doing so, he sent an important message that he valued this type of behavior, and it became a habit: Ever since then, I’ve religiously sent similar e-mails to members of successful teams I’ve led.
Look out for and elevate the quiet performers. The best contributors are often the quietest. For whatever reason, they are not worried about credit and are happy to take a back seat. But people in the guts of an organization often know that some of these individuals are the lynchpins who sustain a project or unit. Taking the time to identify and reward the quiet heroes can generate good will across an organization because it creates the sense that there is real integrity.
Remember that there’s plenty of credit to go around. A mentor early in my career once told me that “credit is infinitely divisible” — in other words, there are no limits on how many individuals can be recognized for contributing to an outcome. That said, credit quickly loses meaning when everyone gets it, including people who didn’t do anything. Highly specific attributions of credit always trump blanket statements of praise. And the value of praise and credit is always higher when leaders and organizations deliver criticism with equal discipline.
Getting the assignment of credit right is important to everyone. It is a driver of high performance. It is a key to making people feel fulfilled and motivated. The very best leaders and organizations get this and spare no effort to get it right.