Smarter Working

The Art of Taking Credit

The way you handle recognition at work can make or break your reputation.

5 min read

It’s hard to think of a nicer sounding word than “collaboration.” The imagery it conveys—people coming together, equally dividing up work, high-fiving at the end of a big project—is what corporate dreams are made of.

But real collaboration is far messier. Often there are people who do more of the work than others. Often there are people who take credit for work that isn’t their own. Often there are people who are happy to let others take the spotlight. 

Striking the right balance between promoting your own work and recognizing others’ contributions is a tricky skill for many business leaders, but experts say it’s one that must be mastered. “Taking and receiving credit is directly linked to your upward mobility within an organization or industry,” says Jolanta Aritz, professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “It directly affects your candidacy for leadership roles.”

"Don’t expect to give or get credit for every contribution."

For many people, self-promotion is a challenge. They fear coming across as arrogant, and so they constantly use “we” over “I.” In general that is a good instinct—research shows that business leaders who express gratitude are not only viewed positively by those around them, but that their appreciation motivates people to work harder.  

The problem, experts say, comes when the “we” is either overused or undeserved. “If you don’t take enough credit, you risk being devalued and not seen for the value you’re bringing,” says Kevin Cashman, global leader of CEO and Executive Development at Korn Ferry.  

This tends to be more of a problem for women than men. Indeed, a recent skills assessment of female CEOs at Fortune 1000 companies shows that women rank higher for humility and lower for confidence, making them very willing to give credit to people who contributed to their success—and sometimes at their own expense. Korn Ferry consultant Anne Gunderson recalls a time when one of her female clients was telling her male boss about a successful project she had led. The woman ended up playing up her co-workers’ achievements so much, she essentially painted herself out of the picture; her boss even joked, “Were you in the room?” 

Gender aside, what else helps on the art of credit?

Master the balancing act.

Achieving a better balance can be done in small tweaks. Instead of a blanket shout-out to people who may not have even helped with a project, call out the specific contributions of those who truly helped; this will give credibility and authenticity to what you’re saying, career consultants say. As part of that, you may also want to acknowledge that this team helped you achieve a certain outcome. “There’s a little bit of prefacing that can take place to make sure you’re not overshadowing yourself,” says Artiz.  

Develop subtle links.

Another strategy is to link what you’re saying to other people’s observations and connect it to future work. For example, instead of telling your boss, “I did this great job in this meeting,” you could say, “Gail said our meeting was really great because the agenda helped us stay on track and brainstorm efficiently. I really enjoyed working with her and would love to set up another meeting when she’s in town.” The difference is that in the second example you’re showing other people’s views and furthering business with this person, not simply tooting your own horn.

Let others brag.

Whenever possible, give others the chance to showcase their own contributions. In a situation where you are presenting to an audience, for example, you could allow for others to share the individual pieces of the presentation they worked on. Experts say this is better than just mentioning their names in passing, because it gives them a voice, and allows for better recognition by the audience, who might not be listening if you were to just thank these people and talk the whole time.

Limit yourself.

Don't expect to give or get credit for every little contribution. If you added two slides to a 100-slide presentation and didn’t get credit for it, it’s probably not worth getting upset over. Likewise, if you helped on a project that isn’t directly correlated to your personal brand, it probably doesn’t make sense to demand that your name be all over it. “You need to become an expert in something,” says Artiz. “If you made a contribution to something that doesn’t exactly speak to your expertise, this is a good time to allow others to take credit and not fight so hard. You have to be strategic in what to go after.” 

Hit the forward button.

On a final note, your higher-ups want to know that you’re succeeding, so it’s important to look for ways to show them this is true. If you get an email from a partner or client thanking you for something you did, it’s nice to forward it along to your manager. This isn’t pompous—it’s an important statement of recognition. “I would just say in the email, ‘Here’s a little day brightener for you,’” says Gunderson.

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