We’ve all had to deal with someone in senior management who regularly takes credit for your department’s successes. If, by chance, you haven’t, savor your good fortune. There’s nothing more infuriating and discouraging than a highly placed jerk who’s riding your team’s coattails.
You want to throttle him, but in your position you have to present a calm front, and keep your staff from openly attacking him.
It’s a bitter pill, and in swallowing it, you have to fight all your better instincts. The injustice of it rankles. It’s not the truth, yet your professional pride is based on accuracy. You see your team seething, and you want them to receive their due. It just really, really gets under your skin, but there’s nothing you can do.
Or is there? Your title may not be on the same org-chart line as the creditmonger’s, but there are ways to deal with this guy. You have to realize that, for better or worse, you set the tone. You can strengthen your team’s reputation in other quarters, and you can build acknowledgment for work well done from the inside out.
It starts with you
Whether you like it or not, the people who roll up their sleeves and do the work are going to turn and look at you when someone in the upper echelons publicly takes a bow for something they achieved. They’ll look at you with a variety of reactions: anger that they want you to share; an expectation that you will correct the misperception; or occasional sympathy and understanding that you, too, have been short-changed. Whatever the reaction, their eyes are on you, and your response will set the tone.
It’s important to react with a sense of perspective. Although it sounds cliche, what is really lasting is the work, not the credit. And your calm, thoughtful demeanor in the face of what amounts to political theft assures the team that you really are the leader and senior comrade they need. Before doing anything else, take a deep breath and relax your jaw.
Understand that it really does matter that credit be properly distributed. It isn’t just in the best interests of you and your team—the good of the company is at stake. If there’s misunderstanding among the decision-makers about the source of good results, at some point bad decisions will creep into high-level processes. Of course, there’s a performance factor; even top-notch professionals are going to deliver work that is less than their best if they feel that they are not appreciated.
And in your heart of hearts, you know that this applies to you, too.
Once you have it in perspective, cross one reaction off your solutions list. You can’t just challenge the Jerk. You will only engender resentment for yourself and your team, create an impression in senior management that you need a pat on the head, and draw lines in the sand that will only distract you from your real work.
But that doesn’t mean that you’re helpless.
More on dealing with a difficult boss
Check out “Dealing with the boss from down below” for advice on how on to overcome an adversarial relationship with your boss.
Building lateral awareness
If you’ve lost a trophy or two to the Jerk, odds are that other managers on your floor have, as well. There may already be a lot of muttering and commiserating going on. Don’t add to it; instead, change the focus.
Let the credit thing pass. Don’t bring it up or respond with any detail if someone else does. You don’t want a reputation as a whiner, and the only reason you don’t see your colleagues as whiners is that you identify with their feelings.
You have a better course available to you. On a regular basis, make it a point to discuss your team’s agenda with your management peers, focusing downward instead of upward. Don’t talk about your own struggles or your feelings about those above you. Talk instead about the solutions that have bubbled up from your project members. Brag about how your networking expert saved your project from a costly mistake, or how an innovative screen layout by one of your programmers is going to simplify a difficult implementation.
In short, make clear to everyone—before your next project is completed—how on the ball your department is. When the time for kudos arrives, the perception that the answers came from within will already be in place. And your reputation as a manager who distributes credit, rather than demands it, will proliferate.
Credit where it's due
The only thing you can do with a skinned knee is slap a bandage on it. And as a leader, you’ve got some bandages in your pocket. When the people in your group are feeling bent out of shape because an “attaboy” went north, you can dish out another. And do it as publicly as possible.
When the project is on time, under budget, or end users’ praise is high—whatever your measure of a job well done—hand out congratulations immediately, and use a spotlight. Send out department-wide e-mails that thank those involved and visibly copy those e-mails upward. Take a few minutes in a staff meeting to make specific mention of exceptional effort. Encourage applause, if appropriate. Post a thank-you memo where others will see it.
Sponsor a sensible group lunch to celebrate your project’s success. If you can, invite one or two executive managers, including your creditmonger (who probably won’t attend). This sends out all the right messages, makes it clear that you put your people first, and gives the creditmonger pause.
Your employees will certainly appreciate you for it, but that’s not your goal. What you want is to let them know that you are pleased with what they accomplished, and that you expect continued high performance. Any extra miles you walk in accomplishing this will show up in their work.
The trickle-up theory
A hard truth in the corporate world is that there is very little positive trickle-down. The money, the stock options, and even the kudos tend to accumulate at the top, even in our flat-management age. There is, however, one tried and true trickle-up: your reputation.
By implementing the practices above, you’ll develop a reputation for fairness and team-mindedness within in your department; and with your peers, you’ll be known for selflessness and inspirational leadership.
All of this will be passed along, one way or another, to executive management (and to the Jerk), who will recognize someone who puts the good of the company ahead of a personal agenda. And, most importantly, you'll have a reputation for getting results.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.