The culture of taking undeserved credit

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I have been thinking a lot lately about the workplace culture of assigning and/or taking credit for accomplishments, undeservedly or unwittingly. It is pervasive in almost every work culture. I don’t really want to go on a rant – but I suspect I will.

For example, an employee’s name may be assigned to a project, and that person may ostensibly, supposedly be contributing to a project – but perhaps that person is contributing nothing (and is possibly even detrimental to the project being completed on time). Yet somehow the incompetence is covered for, or just never exposed, and while the project team suffers, the higher-up management types just assume this dead weight in reality is pulling her weight in theory.

I have worked in a lot of situations populated with characters who fit this type to a T. They are sure to have their name prominently featured in the project and get themselves assigned to a handful of tasks they will never actually complete (causing the rest of the team – or even people outside the team – to pick up the slack). Often internal corporate pressures will force the rest of the team to “support” this person because, you know, we’re all working on this collective farm (welcome to the kolkhoz!) together toward the same goal thing. At some point, as the culprit does not deliver, does not attend required meetings (or attends physically but not intellectually) and delays progress, everyone gets frustrated but no one knows quite what to do. What is the sensitive corporate way of handling this kind of situation? The culprit is also a part of multiple other projects, sometimes even insisting on taking the lead. But these projects drag on for months without any discernible progress, and when the culprit is asked about the status of X or Y project, s/he says, “Due to my obligations in Z project, X and Y are not finished” – never mind that, for example, project Y may have an impact on project Z and thus needs to be completed in line with the requirements of project Z. The real problem is that the culprit – like all those who manipulate in the workplace – is playing a game, creating the illusion of being so busy (and probably actually being busy running around in circles pretending to do all the things s/he has taken on), that s/he earns a reputation as some kind of workhorse and saint who takes on all kinds of projects outside her purview.

Problem is – nothing gets done, and yet most people (especially decisionmakers and executives) don’t see it because they are not on the tactical frontlines (or to keep up the collective farm analogy – let’s say, they’re not plowing the fields because they are too busy making five-year plans while the people around them starve) and because other people cover these culprits’ asses. (And the culprit is usually a “play dumb” type who relies on the goodness and open, sharing nature of corporate teammates. S/he milks team members for just enough key information to say all the right things to the right people to make it seem like s/he knows what is going on. But in fact, s/he does not.)

In every situation to which I have been privy, however, these are the exact people who get promoted and who are championed as “future leaders” in companies. Maybe not always (because sometimes these characters manage to out themselves as idiots). But generally speaking these characters know how to play the game – they do the bare minimum but do get actively involved just when the stakes are high enough that someone “important” will notice. They generally look and act the part and know how to play a political game – and want to play it. It’s a game of appearances.

Naturally not everyone wants to play it or look the part. I certainly don’t. I just want to do my work and move on. I would go so far as to say that in most roles and situations, I just want to be invisible – deliver what is asked and little else. I don’t really need credit.

The thing is, though, that while I may not want or need credit – I also do not want someone else to take credit for my work. I had a long discussion with someone about this recently – we are not attention whores or credit seekers, but it burns us up to see someone (usually the aforementioned “culprit” type) sliding in and taking credit for things that had very little to do with them. Again, how should one handle this dilemma, particularly when there seems to be an institutional blindness to it, which is applicable almost across the board in most companies? The real driver of work and progress is often also seen as a troublemaking, squeaky wheel because s/he keeps pushing and asking questions. S/he doesn’t, therefore, seem like the ideal candidates for promotion. But someone who plays politics, forms some alliances, seems subservient enough to his/her managers while giving the appearance of being both a high performer and team player – while in reality being neither – and who is happy to unquestioningly toe the corporate line and never ask any questions – that’s the future of the company.

Clearly there are people who craft entire careers around building false impressions and being just what they need to be in the perception game that corporate life really is.

Credit and the dirty little secret of maternity leave

In the Nordic countries, where I have spent most of my professional life, maternity leave is a right and an obligation – and it is usually comprised of anywhere from ten months to 1.5 years off work when a person gives birth. (Men and women share the allotted time off.) I am sure I will instantly set myself up as a lightning rod for criticism here – because who on earth attacks pregnant women taking their much-deserved maternity leave? No one attacks mothers but those who want to get their asses kicked.

But when it comes to workplace credit-taking, being on maternity leave seems not to be an impediment to receiving credit for accomplishments and achievements. It seems not to be a reason that a woman should not include projects and achievements on her CV when she was nowhere near the workplace when those things happened. In the former case, I won’t say this is the fault of women who go on maternity leave – they cannot control whether someone at work assigns credit to them for work they never did. This is a matter of perception and impression.

I have been in enough situations where people who have been on maternity leave for a year are getting credit for things that happened wholly while they were away. This is not their fault – this is a byproduct of the impression they left before going on leave, and how relevant their place in the company is. A good example of this – in a previous role, I helped in a rather instrumental way in bringing a project together – there were a lot of people involved, so it is not like I was the sole horse who pulled the plow (you knew the farm would come back into it, of course). (Definitely a big difference between the plow horse and the one-trick pony of the oft-cited dog-and-pony show.)

But when the time came for a big public event in which the contributors were thanked, I was not on the list while all kinds of people who were only tangentially involved were – including one woman who had been on maternity leave for the entire duration of this project. Her influence, her work – absolutely nothing that was connected to her had any connection to this project, and yet, her presence or role in the company was pronounced enough that she could be named as someone to thank in this project while invisible, under-the-radar me was, well… invisible. Again, it’s not that I thought I should be feted for doing my job – I just did not want to see people who had absolutely no hand in it get credit. Maybe it should not matter in the big scheme, but in some way, acknowledging someone else for work in which they had no part at all is a bitterer pill to swallow than not being acknowledged myself. In this case, it was, as I said, someone on maternity leave, so it was not as though she was one of these aforementioned “culprits” who operate in snake-like fashion to slither away with undeserved credit.

It further confirms the idea that credit – and promotability – is about appearances. Not only literally looking the part but most importantly acting the part: some variation of loud, outgoing, social, always-on, opinionated, always-networking, making your presence known. Arguably in work situations, you have to be this way to some degree to climb the ladder. Almost no amount of genius or competence can help you climb the ladder in sales and marketing if you don’t have some of this memorable surface-level personality to match. And in many cases, all you need is a memorable enough surface-level personality. Generalizations, yes, but based on observation. The larger the organization, the more true these observations seem to be because accountability and personal responsibility is diminished further and further the more layers of people, processes and projects you have to cushion your performance or lack thereof.

The latter part of my argument touches a bit more on the diabolical part of taking credit, and in these cases, it would be almost indisputable that the person in question had no hand in the project/accomplishment at all because they were supposed to have been on maternity leave. No one is going to check into this, though, so it makes me wonder about whether this is some kind of tacit, silent understanding between employers, future employers and maternity-leave takers that CVs will be padded with false or misleading accomplishments? (I have no idea – I have never been on maternity leave to test out this theory.)

I have known several people who spent virtually their entire engagement at a company on maternity leave, and yet after the leave ends, particularly if they are moving on to a new company, they pad their resumes with accomplishments that could not possibly have been theirs. Basic math would tell a prospective employer what s/he needs to know without even consulting former employers/references. The projects they highlight were undertaken wholly (or mostly) while they were out having and rearing a child. But no one questions this even though maternity leave in the Nordic countries is about a year in length.

I don’t know if job applicants and potential employers just have an unspoken understanding that this is how it works or if these potential employers scrutinize the claims made on a resume more closely when they hire. It’s just another case of taking credit where it isn’t due and leveraging it to create a false perception and expectation. That is not to say that these claims, however misleading, are untrue in that the person in question cannot deliver the results they claim – they may very well be absolutely qualified. It is true, though, that they definitely did not deliver those results in that specific case listed on their CV. I am just wondering about the underhanded mechanics of this process and whether it is ever actually questioned.

And back to the collective with me…

The American way – a light extinguished

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“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus, from “The New Colossus”

I like to ignore the realities of America now that I don’t live there, but it is true that what happens in the US does affect the world.

Brainwashing in the US begins early. Most people don’t think of it that way – and even rather anti-American people I meet in Europe sometimes think I am going too far when I describe the US system as a form of slavery (especially if one compares it to actual slavery, which of course is an entirely different, toxic and horrifying institution/monstrosity). It might be better to call it indentured servitude, with the indenture owed to student loan companies and increasingly inhumane workplaces. People are too brainwashed to know that that is the machine they are a part of – indoctrinated into the idea that they are would-be millionaires (as John Steinbeck said, ““Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) or that “anything is possible” if they work hard enough – and taught from an early age to value material goods over anything else, so that, unless they are actually hit by real hardship, an average American thinks he is prospering because he managed to buy … a new Jeep or something.

I often tell the disembodied and soulless story as one in which you are born and are told from the earliest time that you must get an education, so you go to public school (or whatever form you attend) and basically learn how not to think while a lot of nonsense is hammered into your head and creativity is systematically removed – stay in line, be quiet, color inside the lines, do what everyone else is doing, no that is not the right interpretation of this, there is only one right answer and only one way to get there). Then you are told you have to go to college or else you will not get a job. You go into great debt to do so. Naturally after that your hands are tied by the debt, so you take whatever job you can get rather than whatever job will make you happy – but you are also convinced that you will be happy if you buy the aforementioned Jeep. And of course unquestionably America is the greatest country in the world (and if you question it, get out because you’re no patriot!), so it does not matter that you don’t have the money or time to travel to see the world. You have a Jeep you can drive around with since you have cheap oil! And since you are stuck wherever you are anyway paying your student debt, you might as well do what everyone else does. Buy a house. Get married. You might start to question whether you are happy in your job, but you know you won’t find another one easily anyway … and now you have a kid or two, so you need to stay in your job to keep your healthcare. Then you play the tug-of-war with yourself about whether you can be a good parent, whether you have enough money for their daycare, whether one of the parents should leave their job (if there are two parents, of course) until you enroll your own kid into the same system that produced you just the way you are now and the same story repeats. And repeats and repeats.

This story, even if it differs from individual to individual, is somewhat amazing to incredulous Europeans, who actually don’t think of the details and intricacy of how this average American mind is formed/created. They often just imagine that “Americans are dumb” (broad strokes of generalization, of course) but fail to take the whole system into consideration. When I tell this story to the average American, it is equally amazing because the semi-awake one never thinks about the fact that each chain in the link of his life is some spot where he has been further handcuffed into the, shall we say, chain gang? University costs – mostly free in much of Europe – healthcare – largely free in Europe – daycare subsidized by the state – lots of vacation time and maternity/paternity leave … sure, taxes are slightly higher (but honestly not that much) – and most do not feel like they are enslaved by their jobs. You can leave any time without risking health coverage. These too are generalizations, especially in this era of steep austerity cuts and unemployment at unheard of rates in much of mainland Europe (Scandinavia is not quite in the same position).

The general theme here, though, is that there is a tremendous freedom to this and an impetus to then really think. But how could an average American be expected to think with that whole backstory forming and informing his life?

The American lifestyle and system creates a certain kind of constant fear. Fear of losing one’s job, fear of violence, fear of being sued, fear of in any way being out of step with the norm. I thought about this one night as I was driving my long-distance commute back home and saw a guy hitchhiking trying to get from a town called Bengtsfors to Årjäng (none of which will be familiar to or mean anything to anyone reading this). It may not be charitable of me not to have offered a ride since I was driving right through Årjäng. But hitchhiking is dangerous territory. I have no idea if this guy posed any danger, and maybe anywhere in the world, it would be foolish to chance it, but even if it were almost a guarantee that it would have been safe, I still would not have done it. You can take an American out of America but not shake the full American paranoia out of them. I have more than my share of this paranoia, assuming that everyone has bad or dangerous intentions and ulterior motives. Being American has taught me never to trust anything.

Maybe it is crazy and sounds like I am looking for the boogieman around every corner, particularly in the working world. Somewhere in me, I find it fun to search and apply for (and interview for, if called) jobs. It did not start as a fun hobby – it was more out of necessity when I searched like mad to find a job (as was always the case in my earlier life – applying for 100 jobs and getting maybe one interview or something). But eventually when I did not need to worry about it anymore and did not need a job, I decided it was partly fun, a bit of a game and one can always use interview practice (and potentially a free trip somewhere). But it was partly this paranoia showing its face – companies go under, companies downsize, industries change – you need to be ready and out there and know what the bloody hell is going on. Be ye ever ready, right? And I am.

Before the big crash of 2008, I was living in Iceland and actually went on a lot of interview trips around Europe… Dublin, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, London, a few times to Helsinki… cannot complain. While it is not always practical, it usually pays off. I have never once been blindsided. If you are paranoid (and/or American) enough, you will always see the writing on the wall and READ IT.

One of my freelance/side “careers” has ended up being job counselor/life coach/resume-and-interview consultant. Not that I ever wanted to do that. Europeans especially need a bit of coaching in this department because they have never experienced the dog-eat-dog American work culture (and I hope they never reach a point that they experience something quite like that). But Europeans are too soft, and there is no doubt that some things in Europe are slowly moving in a more American direction (although I don’t think it will ever go to the extremes). In my last job, there was a huge reorganization a few years ago, and something like one-third of the company was laid off. When this happens, employment laws offer considerable protection, and most decent employers extend protection and assistance beyond what the law requires. Despite the “helping hand” and the clear signs everywhere that change was afoot, those affected by this first reorg (which they euphemistically called “right sizing”) were completely blindsided because they have never been taught (how nice for them) to read the signs of what is coming. I think most aware Americans in a corporate environment are always paying attention to little things because paying just a bit of attention may pay dividends one way or another. Of course Europeans might be told pointblank that change is coming but never imagine that it will have any effect on them. Many of them were devastated in the first round of layoffs, even though they were poised to get at least half a year of pay (even if they got a new job the next day, they would still get the full pay). And the Norwegian economy was not affected much at all by the global economic downturn – so most people found jobs immediately. Their sense of panic was almost cute in its “working world naivete”. Not that I think it is great that I am so on my toes and ready for anything all the time.

It turned out for the best, of course, when I was sort of part of a later “right sizing” process. I was, as always, prepared. It was rather hilarious when my manager called me to give me the “bad news” – kept saying stuff about how I must feel so devastated and would feel it when the shock wore off. But all these strategies and acute situation awareness enabled an automatic prewarning. I was not shocked; I was not surprised. I was ready.

As we know (or should know), life is not defined by work – or should not be. Somehow, this is where American life and “ideals” derail. Increasingly, people work and work and don’t get anywhere and won’t be able to afford (in terms of time or money) some way out of the situation they are in (this is probably already the case, and I am just out of touch). When I consider that people who work in the service industry do not come close to earning living wages, I am appalled. But the system is set up this way – to glorify and maximize corporate profit, to supply consumer demand for impossibly cheaper and cheaper goods sold in stores staffed by people who cannot afford to eat.

Lovely. What a happy Thanksgiving, America.