Crucial Conversations QA

Talking to a Credit-Stealing Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do I say to a boss who consistently steals credit for my work on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis? If a question comes from a client and she doesn’t know the answer (which is often the case), she asks me to help her out. She then turns around and delivers my advice to the client as her own. She strenuously objects if I suggest that we call the client together—even more so if I contact the client—all in the name of “teamwork” of course. She also secures all of my suggestions for improvement of company processes and procedures and presents them to upper management as her own. I know all about “documenting” but I don’t feel like I should have to do that. A good boss would freely give credit where credit is due, as I myself have consistently done throughout my career. By the way, the “clients” are all internal. I have been with the company for over ten years and she has been with the company for less than a year.

Feeling Violated

Dear Violated,

I’m sorry, but I’m totally identifying with your boss on this one. While it’s my name on this column, our editors, Amanda and Brittney, contribute to it in many important ways. In fact, as I think about it, I wonder whether you work here at VitalSmarts. Are you a member of my research team, maybe Chase or Annie? I’m sure they share some of your feelings.

Seriously though, your situation sounds very frustrating. I agree that credit should be shared. So, what can you do? I’ll ask you to forgive me in advance, because my suggestions may not sound like “fixes.” I don’t think you should pick a fight with your manager. In my experience, you’d lose in the long-term—even if you seemed to win in the moment. Instead, my recommendations will focus on actions that are safe and within your control. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I will ask you to change—perhaps even more than your manager.

Master Your Stories. The story you’ve shared is about your boss “stealing credit.” You’ve provided several facts that support the story, and they seem convincing. However, I want you to begin by challenging your story. Here is why: You’ve described your manager as a villain, and yourself as a victim. Our villain and victim stories are often one-sided and biased in our favor. I want you to interrogate your story and look for the rest of it—find any missing facts that may fill in your manager’s perspective and make her more sympathetic.

Here are the questions to ask yourself:

“Why might a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what my manager is doing?”

“What role have I played in encouraging my manager’s behavior?”

“Is there any other, more charitable story that could fit this broader set of facts?”

Mutual Respect. It’s clear that you don’t have a lot of respect for your manager right now. Why would you when you feel she’s violated your trust? However, you won’t be able to develop a positive relationship with her unless you can change the way you interpret your manager’s behavior toward you.
Making this change depends on how you read her intent. Ask yourself: when she steals credit for your work, is it because she wants to undermine or destroy your career? Or is it because she is worried about her own position? Could it be it’s because she’s a new and unseasoned manager?

If her motivation is based on self-protection or inexperience, rather than malevolence, then there is hope. We can all relate to behaving badly when we’re threatened or ignorant. We’ve been there and done that, and it doesn’t mean we are hopelessly bad people. Try to find a way to relate, empathize, or even sympathize with your manager’s motivations. At the same time, don’t be naÏve. If you conclude that your manager is out to get you, then take special care. Don’t leave yourself open to an attack.

Mutual Purpose. You want your manager to treat you as an ally, as a member of her team. But she is acting as if you were a competitor, or as if she can’t trust you. You need to convince her that you’re not a threat to her career, her plans, or her broader purposes. In fact, you need to demonstrate that you’re in her corner, that you’ve got her back.

Begin by asking yourself why she might view you as a competitor. For example, were you in competition for her job? Have you done or said things that could undermine her credibility with others? Does your disrespect for her show on your face? If these are issues, then work to change them. However, don’t try to change your words and actions without first changing your heart. Mouthing the words won’t work if disrespect is showing on your face. That’s why I began my suggestions with Master My Story and Mutual Respect.

Next, determine what your career goals are—goals that don’t make you a competitor—and ask your manager for her help. Your manager wants you to be a team player, and that’s fine. But it’s also fine to have career goals, as long as they don’t conflict with hers or with being a team player. In fact, asking your manager for help gives her a positive, rather than a negative, way to demonstrate her power.

I hope these ideas are helpful. Understand that I don’t know the facts of your specific situation, so take my advice with a grain of salt. Please don’t burn any bridges or take actions that could be career limiting based on my suggestions.

Good Luck,