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What Should You do if Someone Takes Credit for Your Work?

Systems 1 versus Systems 2 Thinking

Has anyone ever taken credit for your work? If so, how did you feel? How did you handle it? Were you able to convince your boss of the wrongdoing? These are some of the questions that arise when trying to deal with an unethical coworker who takes credit for your work.

Taking credit for someone else’s work is an ethical issue. It violates the ethical principle of fair-treatment or justice. The person who wrongfully takes the credit shows disrespect to the employee who did the work. The wrongdoer exhibits a lack of integrity because of the unprincipled behavior.

One mistake people make in dealing with coworkers who take credit for their work is to respond automatically – a knee-jerk reaction. It’s what we call a Systems 1 response: effortless, thoughtless. Instead, a Systems 2 thought process is required: a deliberate, well-thought-out response to the wrongdoing.

Brian Uzzi, a professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, points out that most people draw conclusions right away: ‘They’re trying to make me look bad’ or ‘They’re only interested in making themselves look good.’ But often it’s just an oversight. He says to consider the possibility that your credit-seeking colleague’s behavior might be unintentional. Or it might not be as egregious as you initially thought. That’s fine to say but in the heat of the moment your thoughts might go to getting even (Systems 1 thinking), not thoughtful deliberation (Systems 2).

So, what should be your first step? Get the facts, asks questions, evaluate responses. One way to evaluate the alleged wrongdoers motive for action is to ask: I noticed that when you talked about the project you said “I” rather than “we.” Was that intentional? Why did you present it that way? Karen Dillon, author of the Harvard Business Review Guide to Office Politics, points out that your goal isn’t to pin blame but to “show them that you noticed and that you didn’t think it was right.”

You should first try to handle the matter within the group. If you immediately approach your supervisor, your colleague will maintain a defensive posture and other members of the group may be drawn into the conflict. So, first discuss it with your colleague and search for a way to make things right. The burden should be on your colleague to make sure the group understands your true role in the project. Or, you can both go talk to your manager to set the record straight.

Dillon suggests “Whenever the project or idea is talked about – in person or via email – chime in with details or answers to prove your knowledge.” This has two advantages: To show you know more than your colleague about the work done and conclusions reached and to put your colleague in an uncomfortable position that may hasten their admission about the scope of the work done by you and the colleague.

If all else fails, then it’s time to go to your boss or another manager with the ability to do something about it. Dillon cautions that you should not come off as a complainer: “Frame it as an effort to create a good working relationship, not a way to badmouth your colleague. Your boss wants you to be able to work well together. She isn’t going to want to come in and separate the children.”

Taking credit for someone else’s work is a highly-charged situation because you have a right to expect your work to be judged fairly. Fairness in this sense means justly: Equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally. In other words, individuals should be treated the same unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved. Giving credit where credit is due is an essential part of being a fair-minded person. That can’t happen unless one’s superior is aware of the situation and has all the facts needed to make an informed decision on matters such as which of the two employees deserve credit for the work.

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