In our previous post, we looked the best ways to secure legitimate credit for your work. But most of us, at one point or another, will have been in that tricky situation where someone has taken all the credit for a project without recognising your contribution, or has simply taken the credit that you deserve. Naturally, prevention is better than cure and so our previous blog post is well worth a read. But here we are looking at the situation where prevention hasn’t worked, the credit has been stolen, and now action is needed.
So how to go about taking back that valuable credit without hitting the self-destruct button on your career and relationships with others?
Here’s Our 10-Step Guide To Regaining Lost Credit
The point at which you realise credit has been taken from you is the most dangerous. Emotion takes over and you are at risk of exploding. However, if you blow-up in a whirlwind of fury, you are more likely to lose more than you gain – coming across as an emotional, unprofessional drama-queen. So, take a step back; step out for a coffee to calm down and clear your head. You’ll now need to make clear, well-reasoned decisions.
Once you’re in a good place to think clearly, then act quickly while the work in question is still fresh in people’s minds. If you try to regain credit for something that happened two months ago, fewer people will care about such old news – what was previously perceived to be the reality has become the reality for the senior managers and that is a much harder situation to remedy.
Analyse The Situation
Take a cold look at the situation. There are, essentially, three types of credit theft – idea credit theft, effort credit theft and contribution credit theft. Idea credit theft is where you had the idea, told someone, they repeated it without reference to you and then received all the credit. Effort credit theft is where you did nearly all the work over a period of time, and someone else who did significantly less took the credit. Contribution credit theft is where someone gets better credit for the work than you, despite not putting in more effort.
Especially in collaborative work, it is not always clear who has been responsible for what, making it easier for people to take undue credit in all three of the above ways. First, you’ll want to identify the type of credit theft that has taken place, so it is clear in your mind. Then your next question must be…
Why did they steal your credit?
As you might imagine, a lot of people will jump to conclusions when they feel their credit has been stolen, thinking that the other person is trying to make them look bad, or simply trying to climb the greasy pole making no effort but feeding off others like some kind of parasite.
However, in many, many cases credit stealing is wholly unintentional, simply a case of oversight. Maybe your colleague was nervous during a presentation and kept saying “I” instead of “we”. Or maybe there was a valid weighting of credit at the final presentation – your boss was the motivational driver and strategy mind behind the project, and while your hard work was essential, he/she led the project from the front with ideas. And now you think about it, your boss did mention your name several times in relation to the aspects you worked on. This self-reflection is why the calming down period is so important. Now your next question is…
Does it matter?
Looking at the big picture, does it really matter that this person has taken the credit here? Will this significantly impact your chances of promotion and increased recognition down the line? It has to be said that, in most cases, the answer here will be no. Not every piece of work must have your name on it, and managers often take most of the credit for the work of their juniors, while recognising the importance of their team members to their own success – thus pulling you up with them. In these cases, you can generally just move on with your life and skip to step 8 below.
However, there will be times, such as with a very long-term project where one of your peers has stolen significant credit, where the answer will be yes. For example, the perception of your relative contribution to the project will weigh in favour or against your eligibility for promotion with the upcoming annual review, in a team where not everyone can get promotion.
So, you’ve decided that it does matter and now you make your move. Go for diplomacy and hopefully you can clear up any misunderstandings and get a satisfactory resolution in a calm, open, friendly and adult way without treading on toes or upsetting any apple carts.
Start by asking polite questions. If it was a genuine oversight, this is often enough to prod your colleague. In any case, it shifts the burden of proof on to them – why they felt they were able to take the credit. Questions such as “How did you feel the presentation went? Did you feel it covered all the input from the team?” are the biggest hints you can give your colleague.
If that doesn’t prompt an adequate response, you can try being more direct.
“ I noticed you using ‘I’ a lot of the time when you meant ‘we’ – did you mean to do that?” or “Did you feel you covered the team contribution fully?”. This approach avoids the blame game and gives your colleague all the chances they need to realise the error in not attributing correct credit.
If the credit thief is a manager, you can always ask for a catch-up meeting then raise similar questions in the meeting, or even go a far as offering constructive feedback; “I feel that the presentation could have covered the team contributions a bit more thoroughly”. If this approach yields results, you can skip to step 7.
Pick Your Battles
If approaching the person in question directly hasn’t worked, now is the time to consider escalation. But before you do this, consider the possible outcomes carefully. Again, ask yourself if this is worth it. Is your line manager or senior manager responsive to issues and able to handle them tactfully? Likewise, is the HR team able to cope with feedback on a line manager in a diplomatic and sensible manner. You have to consider whether you are actually creating a bigger problem for yourself, or even going over the head of a manager who, while they took credit for some of your work, is likely to give you a promotion off the back of it. Also, look at what evidence you have. Taking this to an HR team completely removed from the project with no evidence will be difficult. With that said, most organisations are set up to handle work disputes effectively and if there’s a colleague who is a repeat offender, you have a strong case to take forwards.
This should also be approached in a diplomatic way, through a meeting with your line manager, or in the case of a manager’s credit thievery, through HR channels – there is usually an understanding ear to listen. However, when you get into these stages, you’ll need the evidence. In the case of raising it with your line manager, you’ve hopefully kept them abreast of your work during the project. You’ve also hopefully been visible to your other team members regarding the work you’ve been doing so that there are other work colleagues who will corroborate your version of events if needed. If you are taking issue with a line manager, and going to senior managers or HR, the requirement for evidence is even greater. Chances are the only contact a senior manager has had with the project is through the reports from your line manager. In any case, once again approach this with diplomacy and tact. Complaining, accusing and finger waving will not sell your story, but framing it as a way to help the team work better will.
If your colleague or manager acknowledges their error, you can then discuss the way forwards to make things right. This could take many forms, such as the colleague in question having a quick chat with your line manager to set things straight. If the manager is at fault, it could be that he/she sends an email around your colleagues thanking them for their contributions, with the senior managers he/she presented to Cc’d in. But if this proves difficult for whatever reason, don’t get too hung up on past transgressions. The important thing is you’ve given a clear message and things should improve going forwards. Rather, think about formal ways to structure the credit giving in future to prevent a reoccurrence of the situation.
Learn From The Experience
A situation like this will always provide valuable lessons. Start by questioning what went wrong.
Was this a case of taking yourself too seriously and getting worked up over something that didn’t matter in the bigger picture? If it was a more serious issue - did you cover yourself adequately against credit theft? Go back to our previous post and start taking preventative measures. Was this a case of someone you confided in who then ran with your idea their own? Make sure you are more wary and careful with your ideas in future – work them up properly and come to the table with them fleshed out as a plan, and beware the colleague who let you down. Get your colleagues to ask you questions about your contributions in meetings to provide social proof of credit ownership.
Finally, what was the reaction to your efforts to regain your credit? Did you have understanding ears willing to listen to you? Or was it a constant uphill struggle? Maybe there was no resolution and you had to take it on the chin? If that was the case and this looks like it could become a cycle, then it is definitely time to move employers.
Understand The Compliment
Wait, What? Yes, that’s right. Someone thought your work was good enough to take credit for it. If they sought to tarnish your reputation, it is because you have built a reputation worth tarnishing. Look at it philosophically; they could have picked anyone in the team, but they picked you. While this may be annoying, take heart from the fact you stand out as someone who shines and move on to step 10…
The fact is that if someone is trying to own your work, it is because it is worth owning. You are starting to rise above the level of some of your colleagues. Take on the challenge of pushing yourself further and shining brighter. Rather than fighting like cats and dogs over who takes the credit, make it so obvious that there is no question. Work on your skills, your networking and your self-promotion all at once.
Ultimately, you can take measures to prevent credit theft from taking place, and you can have a plan ready in case credit theft does occur, but you’ll not always be able to take the credit for everything that you do. Instead, expend your energies on those important pieces of work that will directly boost your career advancement and become the person who shines a light on the contributions of others. Establish a reputation as a great team player, as well as an outstanding individual contributor ready to move up through the organisation.