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,


Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Building a House…One Skill at a Time

Andrew MaxfieldAndrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation that seeks to increase humanity’s capacity to change for good.

Influencer Institute

It began innocently enough. My wife and I bought a fixer-upper—a cool, though neglected, ’60s suburban gem—and drew up plans with an architect for a “little remodeling project” that we would do, ourselves, to “save money.”

You can probably guess where this is going. And if you’ve been there, you also won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Several months later, I was staring at our back yard—from my vantage point on the front sidewalk, through the giant crater in the middle of our house. This was a view no one was ever supposed to see and that was now haunting me day and night. By that point, we had nearly leveled the house, ripping off the roof and even pouring new concrete footings and foundation walls.

My headache-du-jour was the entryway that we were supposed to build in place of the crater. This entryway would be a prominent design feature on the never-ending construction project that was now infamous throughout the neighborhood. More importantly, it would be the barrier to prevent passersby from walking their dogs in my dining room. True story.

But there was a problem: I had no idea what to do or even where to start. I felt hopeless. It wasn’t just the frustration of the moment; it was the accumulation of weeks and weeks of stress. Not only could I not make heads or tails of the architectural schematics, I didn’t have the carpentry know-how to cut, treat, and install the planks of tongue-and-groove cedar that were stacked in my driveway, mocking me.

Fortunately, my father arrived on the scene before I could find a stick or two of dynamite. An experienced builder and cheerful worker, he helped me break the task of building the entryway into bite-sized pieces. First we overlaid measurements on the underlying structure to make sure our work was plumb and square; then he showed me how to make mitered joints and cuts using a variety of saws; then we started applying timber oil to the cedar. Of course, I was overthinking each step and agonizing over my mistakes. But the act of doing, the deliberate repetition of small steps, gradually built my confidence and competence.

Before long, the entryway took shape—and our local dog-walkers had to choose new routes.

So my father won on two accounts. First, he showed up, and it’s hard to overstate how much I appreciated that help. Second, he sensed that I was anxious about my lack of ability rather than simply unmotivated, and he provided help in the form of unhurried coaching and teaching. Rather than delivering a pep talk, he helped me learn how to do what needed to be done, which in turn freed me from my feelings of frustration and despair.

How does this homebuilding homily relate to your work and mine? Consider it a warning about a kind of thinking that can sabotage our work: when we see someone who isn’t doing the right thing at the right time, it’s convenient—but often dead wrong—to make assumptions about that person’s lack of motivation.

For instance, in Influencer Institute’s work to accelerate the successes of microenterprise organizations, we’ve learned that it’s folly to assume that poor people are simply lazy. Instead, we’ve learned that they very often lack skills related to personal management, which they can develop through coaching and practice. Your conclusions about yourself and others can be no better than your assumptions, so train yourself to look for hidden skill gaps that underlie what appear to be maligned motives.

Reflecting on my ongoing renovation saga, what’s most interesting to me is that when it came time to build the rear entryway to my house (very similar to the front), I jumped right in and built it without hesitation, indigestion, or help.

Moral of the story? Never trust the architect.

Influencer QA

Creating Joy at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am struggling with the culture in my current organization. The goals set by management are ambiguous and seemingly meaningless. Performance feedback and “constructive criticism” are at first rare, then harsh and punitive. Morale is horrible. I dread going to work every morning! Everyone does. What can my colleagues and I do to make a positive impact on the culture of our organization?

Desperate for Change

Dear Desperate,

If misery loves company, then take solace in knowing that there are a lot of people out there who suffer similar circumstances. Job satisfaction, pride, meaning, happiness (maybe even joy), are not terms that many people associate with their jobs. Depending on the survey you read, as many as two-thirds of employees polled across the country don’t like their work. I once interviewed a group of front-line supervisors who so hated their jobs that they looked into the mirror each morning and talked themselves into going to work that day. Not good.

When it comes to how most of us feel about our jobs, we fall somewhere between “thrilled to go to work” and “bring me a mirror.” The fact that you’ve spotted a problem with morale in your current job and that you’re anxious to do something to improve it is good news for the people around you. It is an important issue, it can be addressed, and it’s definitely worth the effort.

So, let’s start with a couple of key ideas. First, it doesn’t take much to turn a career into a job and a job into a daily grind. Lots of elements have to be in place to create both a job and workplace that generates daily satisfaction. One element goes wrong, and a job, even an entire workplace, can go sour.

Second, there are lots of positive emotions that could and should be associated with work. Most people shoot for being satisfied, and that’s nice, but many people actually take genuine pleasure from their work. For others there’s pride; for still others, meaningfulness. Many find deep and abiding relationships. Some describe their work place as happy and, as we’ll learn later from our friend Rich Sheridan, some even aspire to making the workplace joyful. Imagine that—”joy” and “work” being used in the same sentence.

It’s important that we acknowledge the fact that a workplace can be a cornucopia of positive emotions. It gives us something to aspire to. Stress shouldn’t be the norm. Anger, depression, boredom, disgust, fear, and other negative emotions shouldn’t be shrugged off with, “Hey, it’s work. Nobody said it was supposed to be fun.” Work is too time consuming and life absorbing not to provide us with lots of positive emotions. Anything less would be a tragedy.

So, let’s look at some likely places to start exploring and intervening, if you want to create a productive and satisfying workplace.

Candor. When we first started studying people at work, we quickly discovered that every workplace came with a potential malaise. Often, people don’t feel comfortable expressing their best ideas. They quickly learn that if they openly disagree with the current thesis (particularly if their opinion runs against the majority or a person in authority), they fall under attack. Sometimes it’s only an ugly stare, but it’s an attack nevertheless. So employees learn to shut up to keep the peace and then suffer the consequences of working in a place where poor ideas are routinely accepted. If people can’t voice their opinions, speak up to solve problems, and bring their best ideas into play, they’re not going to like their jobs.

Accountability. If you want to be happy at work, don’t take a job at a place where accountability is spotty. You’ve seen it. Coworkers don’t stick to their promises and let you down, and then nothing happens. This can be very frustrating. You end up doing the work of two because others aren’t doing their fair share and are getting away with it. In a similar vein, allowing people to bully coworkers, disregard safety, deliver poor quality, and otherwise underperform can lead to enormous stress. And if the bosses finally get upset at the current level of performance and then go off on a tirade, you have a whole new set of problems. If your accountability system and the face-to-face skills that go with it are subpar, don’t expect job satisfaction.

Influence. Today’s marketplace is so turbulent that organizations are constantly being forced to reinvent themselves. This means that if leaders aren’t adept at both motivating and enabling changes in routine behavior, they’re going to create two competing camps—one fighting for the new, the other clinging to the old. If you can’t create a vision of the kind of organization you want to become, along with a path to get there, expect conflict, disappointment, and angst.

Now, I realize that I’ve just addressed three areas we write about. There’s a reason for this. We believe they form the very foundation of organizational success along with the attendant positive emotions. Nevertheless, there are other factors to consider as well—each with it’s own gurus and theories to back them up. Let me quickly share four.

Flow. After years of analyzing what leads to a deep sense of satisfaction with completing one’s daily assignments, Mihály Csikszentmihályi explains that if a job isn’t intrinsically rewarding, under one’s own control, and completed within an environment free of constant interruptions—it won’t be satisfying. Look for each of these three components in every job.

Happiness. When Daniel Gilbert released his book Stumbling on Happiness, he forced us to rethink our views on what will bring us satisfaction. What we imagine will bring us satisfaction is often wrong. Gilbert recommends that we look to what actually brings others satisfaction, not what one imagines will do so. At the corporate level, take care to study what the best companies have aspired to and carefully consider those goals.

Meaning. In a recent article published by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Dr. Jennifer Aaker suggests that happiness isn’t the only emotion to consider when evaluating one’s life (or, for that matter, running a company). Many people may not be happy in the moment, but they’re having a meaningful experience and that’s a good thing. The opposite can also be true. You can get something you want—which will make you happy—but satisfying your current wants is not likely to feel meaningful. In a similar vein, solving problems or working through tough relationships may not make one happy, but it can be very meaningful. As you generate your aspirations, consider a range of positive outcomes. Satisfaction and happiness are worthy aspirations, but don’t forget to include meaning on your wish list.

Joy. In his recent release of Joy, Inc., Rich Sheridan dares to take on the challenge of making the workplace not merely satisfying, but joyful. After years of working in settings that should have been satisfying, fulfilling, and even exhilarating but were actually stressful and depressing, Rich set out on a mission to find what it takes to create joy at work. It turns out, it requires a host of elements—many tied to the physical environment as well as how work is actually completed. If you want to see how one determined leader turned a stressful workplace into one that is both joyful and triumphant, check out Joy, Inc.

So there you have it. It is a good idea to try to improve morale with all of its attendant emotions. Start with where people currently feel the most pain. Look under the hood and closely evaluate candor, accountability, and influence. Talk to your coworkers about the issue. Decide what you want to achieve and then measure those aspirations frequently and carefully. Dare you ask if people can’t wait to come to work each day? Would you ever poll employees by asking if they think about their job during their commute, or brag to their friends about the cool place they work? Set your goals high. Aspire to create a workplace where people routinely experience deep satisfaction, happiness, pride, meaning—and yes, even joy.