Teamwork is great, until it isn’t.
Your workplace might run on collaboration, but when it comes time to dole out raises and promotions, it’s not your whole team being judged—it’s you.
If you’re toiling away at your desk and then letting your group (or worse, one dude in your group!) take credit for your work, you’re going to have a tough time moving up in your career. Let’s talk about how to claim credit without feeling like your ego is doing the talking.
Why it Matters
Most obviously, getting credit for your work is critical for getting raises and promotions.
Keep in mind that every raise you get over the next several decades will be based on the salary figure before it, so failing to angle for a raise now will cost you money forever. Five thousand dollars you could have gotten in 2014 is most likely $5,000 less each year for every year until you retire. That could be a $200,000 mistake. It’s important that you make real contributions, that the right people know about them, and that you negotiate assertively and often.
Getting credit for your work is also important in pushing back against sexism and other forms of prejudice. If, for example, you are a woman in science and the people around you tend to view female scientists as helpful-helpy-helpers who provide valuable “assistance” to male scientists—well, they’re having that thought literally every day. So quash that thought literally every day.
That demands constant vigilance in terms of getting credit for your work. If you’re one-fifth of a team and doing one-fifth of the work, people who start out biased against you will habitually downgrade your contribution. You have to habitually claim credit just to get others to perceive the reality of your contributions.
Furthermore, all jobs are temporary. At some point you will sit in a job interview trying to explain what you can offer. You need to be able to separate your contributions from those of your co-workers. That may mean a clear list of quantified achievements on your LinkedIn profile. In some industries, it may mean your name is on the title page of a book (or engraved into the cornerstone of a building).
When Colleagues Steal Your Ideas
I was recently witness to the classic scenario in which a man steals an idea a woman said five minutes ago, and presents it anew—as his own. It was sort of stunning to watch.
In this case, you don’t say, “Hey, that was Mimi’s idea.” It’s a little too on the nose. Try this: “Oh, that’s an interesting perspective on Mimi’s idea. I’m also on board with what Mimi said. I’m glad we seem to be coming to a consensus.”
If you’re Mimi, try this: “I’m glad we’re on the same page! The way I originally conceived of doing this, Dan would be in charge of X and Tatiana would be in charge of Y...” And then take back the conversation.
You can also create email trails by clearly proposing ideas to be discussed in an upcoming meeting, putting your research in a document you send out to the group, or writing recaps of what was discussed in a meeting that just happened.
Sometimes you might develop an idea in an email to just one person. That way, if someone tries to pass your idea off as his, you can reply to the old email thread, adding all relevant parties and something like, “Hey Mark, cc’ing the rest of the team on our conversation from Monday, since this seems to be the direction we’re going in.” And oh look: There’s the big idea, right there in your email from four days before the meeting.
Finally, here’s a trick you can use at least once or twice. Advocating for your idea? Come to the meeting with a nice, crisp file folder. In that folder, you have numerous copies of some innocuous document that timestamps your idea as clearly pre-meeting—for instance, a brainstorming sheet of different aspects of the idea that the meeting attendees can work through together. If someone is in the middle of stealing your idea, act really enthusiastic and start passing out the papers. When the speaker gets distracted, jump in and say, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I’m glad you’re on board with this idea. I made these brainstorming sheets after suggesting this idea to so-and-so last week.”
Get Your Name on Projects
Sometimes it’s not really about other people stealing your ideas—you’re just doing your part on an assigned project, and there’s no concrete way to claim credit for it.
That’s fine. That’s what most work is like. But you still deserve credit for your contributions. Think about the credits to any movie—the caterer gets credited.
Everyone gets credited.
When I send a work document of any kind, I tag it with my name and the date, similar to the way you put a header on your school papers without really thinking about it. I have a little abbreviation for my name (“JDz”), and I’ll typically tag documents with a subtle little “JDz. 07/06/15.” Put your tag in the header or footer of a Word document, where it’s subtle, grayed-out, and takes an extra step to remove. When appropriate, save your file as an non-editable PDF.
You can also tag yourself in documents under the guise of being available to answer questions. In that case, add a final subhead along the lines of “Questions, Updates, Revisions,” and then a little section saying that the document is accurate as of [date], and that queries or updates may be sent to [your name] at [your email].
Make Documents for New Procedures
Your job doesn’t really involve sending out documents? Actually, a lot of valuable information gets buried in a thread below a bunch of people hammering out a meeting time. If you’re burying a bulleted list, a list of steps, or a list of contacts, maybe these deserve to be a document of their own.
Even better: Take it upon yourself to create documentation for any new procedures that have been added to the workflow. When the company puts out a press release, do you put the release in the Press section of the website, write a blog post about the news, and post to social media? Great, that’s a procedure. If no one has documented it, do so.
If you’re an intern and you get the idea that the interns at the company are maybe a little bit useless because each one has to be trained from scratch, turn your notes into some procedural documents you can leave behind when you complete your internship. Everyone will remember the golden intern who left a legacy of bettering the performance of all future interns.
Maybe the company blog should offer some downloadable white papers. Maybe you should offer to write one. Put your name in there, along with the names of the graphic designer who laid it out and the photographer who took the cover image. Do it in a classy, factual way, giving credit to others where credit is due.
Teamwork Doesn’t Mean No Credit
If you have trouble sorting out which aspects of a group project to claim credit for, perhaps tasks were not assigned very clearly to begin with. When the project begins, push to have specific people responsible for specific tasks. Set yourself up during the delegation phase: If you want more credit in the end, ask for more and bigger tasks now.
It’s pretty easy to claim credit for group projects if you begin by giving others credit where credit is due. Talk up at least two other people, and then acknowledge yourself in turn: “Ramon was instrumental in doing X. Yasmin put in a tremendous effort to crunch the entire team’s numbers by our deadline. And the thing I’m most proud of is…” Instead of sounding self-serving, you sound gracious—and like the MVP of a winning team.
Also consider: Who do you really need credit from? Mostly whoever gives you promotions and raises, right? Maybe the rest of your team doesn’t give you the credit you feel is due, but your boss still can.
Don’t wait until a formal review to inform her of your accomplishments, which may seem trumped up when presented after the fact. Instead, check in with your manager and mentors regularly. As in, “I want to get feedback on and ask a couple of questions about my main contributions to project XYZ,” or, “Before I spend three weeks hammering away on this, I want your advice on the best way to do X.” If your manager has been aware of your contributions every step of the way, you won’t have to make such an aggressive case, out of the blue, the next time you want something.
Freelancers: Negotiate for Credit
I once wrote a booklet on how to debate as a promotion for Dewar’s Scotch. It turned out pretty hilarious. I was sent a beautifully laid-out draft that didn’t have my name on it anywhere. I requested a credit, and my name was added to the cover, along with the name of the illustrator.
In retrospect, I should have clarified this in the original contract before doing the work.
Here’s one way to handle it: Amiably inform the client that your name will go in such-and-such a place, or that you charge a (hefty!) “private label fee”—you’re happy either way. That’s usually enough of a threat to get your name in the right place, and the client maybe even feels like he’s getting a bargain, knocking $1,000 off the price just by “letting” you put your name on your work.
Make your “credit” a matter of fact and not up to someone’s judgment. Even mundane tasks are generally countable. People are always sending spreadsheets to you, and you make small adjustments? Great, you “conducted 21 audits of the wholesale figures over a six-month period.”
How many lines of code did you write? How many hours did you spend debugging others’ work? How many problems did you intercept before they affected clients? Generally even better—how much money did you make for the company?
If it seems a little obsessive to keep lists of tasks you’ve completed, make a list, timeline, flowchart, editorial calendar, or project map ahead of time, and update it as you go. That way your documentation not only serves as a record of your work but also makes you look extremely precise and organized.
Keeping track of and quantifying your accomplishments can not only be helpful when it comes time to make a case for a raise, it can keep you motivated as you work. Feeling bogged down? Look at that list. It’s freaking beautiful.
Practice Claiming Credit
If you feel uncomfortable claiming credit, you need to have some stock phrases up your sleeve that you can imagine saying in a real work conversation. And you need to practice. That might mean practicing in front of your mirror, or in small situations where it doesn’t really matter—in a casual conversation with a colleague you’re friendly with, or when chatting with your romantic partner about work.
If someone takes your idea in a meeting, don’t sit there, glowering. Jump back in immediately, with the affected cheerfulness that workplaces run on. Try, “Great, I’m glad you agree! So to elaborate on the original idea, I suggest X.” Or just, “Thanks so much for supporting this. I really think it’s the right course of action.”
When your work is acknowledged appropriately, make sure it happens again. Try, “It really does a lot for my motivation at work to see my name on things I’ve worked hard on. Thanks for acknowledging my contributions.”
If you’re just plain being ignored—for instance, the team leader is acknowledging his buddies, but not you—join the lovefest by pointing out how helpful other people’s contributions were in the big thing you were in charge of and brought to completion. Try: “And I’d like to offer a toast, so to speak, to Deepak—I wouldn’t have been able to pull together the final proposal by the deadline without his research.”
If you want to let your boss know what you’ve accomplished, say, “I’m really excited to be in the home stretch of [big task]. I’ve been doing this task solo, so I wanted to get your feedback on [small part of the task] before I present it to the group.” Asking for advice is a way to mention your contribution, but asking for advice about something small and specific makes you seem confident and on top of the project as a whole.
If doing all of this seems really not you, adopt a when-in-Rome attitude. If you work in finance, it’s your job to find out the rules of succeeding in finance, and that might involve talking yourself up. That doesn’t change who you are as a person. You’re adapting to the rules of a work culture, and that can take some getting used to.
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