Getting credit: Taking your place in a meritocracy

Getting credit: Taking your place in a meritocracy

In an open organization, the best ideas should always win. But the best ideas can't win if we don't hear them.

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Imagine these situations (women, minorities, and junior associates in organizations deal with them regularly, but they can happen to anyone):

  • Situation 1: You're participating in a meeting, brainstorming ways to overcome a challenge the department is facing, and you make a suggestion. The suggestion is quickly dismissed. Ten minutes later, someone else makes the same suggestion and suddenly everyone thinks it's the best idea since sliced bread.
  • Situation 2: You're working with a group of people on an important task. You stayed up all night finishing it, and after the team reviews and approves it, someone sends it to the manager. In the upcoming company meeting, that manager gives a glowing commendation of the task and singles out one of the team members—the one who sent the presentation, of course—thanking them for a great job and ignoring everyone else.

Dealing with either of those incredibly frustrating situations without appearing petty is difficult. But getting credit for your ideas and work is critical in today's organizational environments, especially those that aspire to be well-functioning meritocracies. Promotions, bonuses, and other forms of recognition (such as the opportunity to lead the project you proposed) are all generally based on performance. If people don't know you contributed, you'll likely be continually overlooked.

However, if you stand up and confront the situation head-on—"Hey, I said that idea a couple minutes ago," or "What about the rest of us?"—you might cause an awkward standoff with a few mumbles, but certainly won't achieve your goal.

So how to strike a balance?

Context frames intentions

In some unfortunate cases, people may be purposefully marginalizing you and your ideas. However, in many cases, such marginalization is completely unintentional. Recognizing the difference can be critical as you determine the best way to respond, if at all.

Understanding the flow of a meeting can help clarify here. For example, consider a scenario that's likely all too familiar to some: a junior, female engineer makes a suggestion and it essentially gets ignored. Thirty minutes later, however, someone else makes the same suggestion and everyone seems to give it much more serious consideration.

Getting credit for your ideas and work is critical in today's organizational environments, especially those that aspire to be well-functioning meritocracies.

In this specific case, context, timing, and understanding are influential factors. For instance, when the engineer makes her original suggestion she's viewing the situation in a specific light—but most people in the meeting might be looking at the problem from a completely different perspective. After 30 minutes, however, the conversation has shifted, and most people are seeing the problem in the same light as the original suggester. Suddenly, her suggestion makes a lot more sense to everyone. Stories like this can have happy endings: when the suggestion gets made again the person re-surfacing it can refer to the engineer's original suggestion and recognize it (I've seen this happen firsthand). But too often, unfortunately, nobody in the meeting remembers that the original suggestion had ever been made—or who made it.

When possible, keep these things in mind to avoid assuming negative intent:

  • Reputation is cumulative. People known for having good ideas or being more influential are more likely to see folks agreeing with them.
  • Timing is crucial. You may have the perfect idea—just not at the opportune time.
  • Presentation makes a difference. You may have advanced a great idea but presented it in a way that didn't connect with a particular audience.
  • Someone commending the wrong person may not actually know who worked on a project and didn't think to ask.
  • Someone who presents your idea may not have been fully listening to you and heard it subconsciously. So they truly believe it's their idea.

Distributing credit

One of the risks of sticking up for yourself is that you can seem hostile or petty. You might also give the appearance that you're putting yourself and your own reputation before the idea and its value for the group. You want to use strategic methods to get the recognition you deserve in a positive manner.

Here are a few suggestions that may help you do this:

  • When someone else gets recognized for your work, you might approach them and ask them to send out a clarification email—something that reads "Thanks for the recognition, but I also wanted to mention the hard work of my colleagues, without whom this wouldn't have gotten done." This allows them to show that they collaborate well and get credit for that collaboration, while at the same time recognizing your contribution. It's a win/win.
  • Partner with someone else at a meeting who is willing to support you and your idea by saying something like "That sounds interesting. Can you explain it a bit more?" When a colleague responds to your suggestion this way, others are more likely to pay attention. When someone else raises an idea you've already suggested, your partner can say something like, "Great idea. That's exactly what {idea originator} said earlier."
  • Ask a trusted colleague or mentor for a critical assessment of the differences between your presentation of an idea and other people's. How can you use your unique personality to be heard? What are the character attributes of people who are more easily able to have influence on this team or in this organization?
  • Collaborate instead of getting upset. For example, say something like "That's very similar to what I suggested. I'm sure if we work together on this, we can build an awesome proposal." That calls out the fact that you made the suggestion, but in a non-petty, positive way.
  • After the meeting, write up and send your proposal to the group. Explain it with something like, "As we discussed, we want to do X, Y & Z. Attached is my draft proposal to accomplish that. I would appreciate collaboration and feedback."

In open organizations, the best ideas should always win—and for that to happen, everyone should feel like their ideas are being heard. Stay positive, be assertive, and don't allow yourself to be ignored.

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About the author

Sim Zacks - DevOps/CI Architect with over 20 years of experience across the technology stack, including design and development of software and databases as well as DevOps, CI and system & network administration. Business Leader with experience in business processes development, team management, consensus building, mentoring and training. Experienced Speaker at internal and external conferences on technology subjects Strategic Thinker with strong problem solving skills