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.
Prevent it from happening again
There’s really only one sure-fire method of preventing this from happening, and it is to preemptively, publicly, claim credit for everything you do.
At the Executive Women International Academy of Leadership conference last week, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, keynote speaker (and all-around awesome lady) Fawn Germer said: “If you don’t take credit for what you do, it is likely that someone else will.”
To be completely realistic, though, I understand that are many very reasonable reasons why you may not be entirely comfortable doing this. And you are by no means alone. Later that day at the EWI conference I asked my class of 120 women (and one man) in my leadership workshop “Who here feels 100% comfortable promoting their accomplishments at work?” As is usual in such groups, only three or four individuals raised their hands.
Publicly claiming credit for the work you do, also known as “tooting your own horn” is not comfortable for most people. Why? Here’s my theory: We’ve all worked with someone who overdid it and was always bragging about their achievements. In response to this, we say to ourselves “I never want to be that person” and cease claiming credit for our work – even in situations where it is appropriate and necessary.
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.
Now consider what feels worse: Proactively claiming credit for your major accomplishments, or having that credit taken by someone else. Hopefully, you can agree that promoting your achievements is the lesser evil.
So mark each major milestone by stopping work and taking action to attach your name to the result. For example, make an announcement in a meeting or by email such as “Team, I just completed the financial modeling for this quarter and have begun work on next quarter. If you’d like have questions or would like to discuss the results or methodology, please let me know.”
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?
Here are three steps to decisively and diplomatically shut down a colleague who takes credit for your work.
Step 1: Immediately set the record straight
Let’s say it happens again. You’re in a meeting and a colleague, Kevin, claims credit for your work … again. What should you do?
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.
Why say it was a collaboration, even if it wasn’t? It is to help Kevin save face with the team, because the real conversation will take place with him privately, later. You don’t want to raise his defenses any higher than they already are. If you have thrown him under the bus now, you can forget about having a reasonable conversation later.
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.
After you have his permission, tell Kevin that you respect his work and his contributions to the team, and that you won’t hesitate in future to praise him publicly for his contributions. Then with a tone of pure authority, say “But if you claim credit for my work again, I will set the record straight. Is that clear?” Listen carefully to what he has to say, but don’t be persuaded to back down from this very reasonable request.
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 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. If their behavior continues after multiple conversations, escalate your complaint to a higher authority such as your supervisor, and share your track record of prior conversations to show that you’ve been handling it like a grown-up and taking reasonable action.
In her keynote speech to EWI members, Fawn Germer also said “Don’t avoid uncomfortable conversations. They take between five and fifteen minutes,” and often a lot less! Ultimately, a short, uncomfortable conversation can be far less stressful than working in a team where credit and praise are unfairly given and taken.
Jo is founding editor of BeLeaderly.com. A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women.
This column was originally published on BeLeaderly.com.