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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,

David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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20 thoughts on “Talking to a Credit-Stealing Boss”

  1. This is a rare moment. This is the first time and have read one of your columns and disagreed totally. Early in my career i had one of these bosses. Terrible experience. When i supervised people i ALWAYS made a point of giving credit or in those rare occasions when i wanted to take credit told them i was and why.
    Keep up the good work the other 99% of the time. 🙂

  2. Was in the same very situation with stealing my credit, – but it was more to it.
    My boss tried to pull me aside, made less than intelligent decisions, and tried to
    make me do things which would hurt the company business by intimidating me.
    He thought that decisions he made were intelligent because of the lack of knowledge.
    I felt my integrity was at stakes, but never actually hurt the company business, but he
    felt that I don’t subordinate. I tried to come across and explain, why he could not do things, but he wanted to try his power. I lost all respect to my boss entirely..I was trying to hide the feeling, but the feeling was probably shown on my face…with that feeling..I had to go..and find myself another job..Your advice – is how to make a relationship better..between two
    people, where one of them steals from another..how is that possible?

  3. David: I apologize up front if I’ve misinterpreted your advice to this person. If I am reading correctly, I’m surprised at what appears to me to be option-narrowing advice and a defensive tone in this response. It’s not what I have come to expect of you and your team. Your response has some good suggestions in it, including owning the story and changing the self prior to addressing the concerns and then approaching through a lens of respect. However,I get the impression you’re also suggesting the author indirectly act self-anad-other protectively rather than directly attempting to address the concerns. Do your methods only work with peers or subordinates? Where and when does this person speak directly to the manager about the optics of the situation and thus create an apportunity for both of them to address and change? Your suggestion feels to me as if you are suggesting approaching from a place of subordination which would create a negative and defensive energy, rather than a conversation focussed on positive solution. I worry that your directions would solidify your story that they are in competition and can’t trust. This somehow feels contrary to the great advice you people usually provide.

  4. David, you have not actually answered the question. Mastering your stories is great advice for us all, but sometimes we have to deal with those whose own stories are twisted.

    Assume that the boss really is “credit-stealing.” How does “Violated” approach her? What if she dismisses any and all criticism? A Crucial Conversation can be difficult when the pool of shared meaning is too small to allow a second person.

    I have met people whose own stories do not allow them to be wrong, at all, for any reason (see cognitive dissonance). These folks are not concerned about the relationship portion of CPR; they are concerned about shoring up their own fragile self-esteem. This sort of behavior is common among narcissists.

    Can you give us any advice about how to deal with these people?

  5. Summary. Convince yourself that the boss is stealing credit because she’s incompetent not evil, then you’ll feel better. 🙁 No suggests on how to STOP the boss from stealing credit. No suggests for what to do once you have a converstation and the boss confirms she’s evil or incompotent.

  6. I disagree with the advice given here. I have been in a similar situation and it is frustrating to have a boss that not only takes credit for you do or suggest but as well as others on the team. Rather than being frustrated I stopped having ideas or suggestions. It made my work life less stressful and she got the message.

  7. Thanks David! I think you hit it right on with your response! While it’s totally possible that this person’s manager is an overambitious, do anything to climb the ladder sort of person, it’s important to take a step back and make sure the story you’re telling yourself is accurate. Not being able to assume good intent will make it very difficult to have a rational conversation with the boss. I think an open, honest discussion where feelings can be shared in a safe way will help all involved. Otherwise, the author of this letter is going to stop giving good information to the boss and productivity will suffer. The boss probably doesn’t realize how this looks to you. A conversation could lead to her still relating your expert information to customers, but giving you credit as a contributor.
    Thanks for your newsletters! They are very helpful in reminding us of things I learned in training and being able to relate them to real-life situations!

  8. The way you responsed to this question, makes me think you are feeling gulity. Credit should be given where credit is due. I believe the crucial conversation needs to be between yourself and your staff. It is never correct to use the work of others as your own. As you asked the individual to look at themself, so should you.

  9. Great response. I especially like the opportunity to revisit the story. I often can paint myself feeling victim and find myself with greater clarity when I get out of that mind set.

  10. Many of you are right on target. Thanks for the feedback.

    First, my lame attempt at humor in the first paragraph didn’t work. My point there was that many of us–myself included–“steal credit” from others without even knowing it. Most of us work in very interdependent environments, where others contribute to our success.

    Second, several of you pointed out that I didn’t focus on the conversation the questioner asked for help with, i.e., “How do I talk to my boss about her bad behavior?” Instead, I focused on other more self-related actions the person could take.

    I agree with your criticisms of my answer. Although I do think it’s important for the person to examine his/her stories and find areas of mutual purpose and mutual respect, I should have gone on to help with the conversation itself. Here are some very brief recommendations:

    1. Use the CPR skill: Identify 2 or 3 incidents that illustrate the Pattern–and that you have lots of facts about.

    2. Use the STATE skill. Start with very specific facts about what you expected in your selected incidents.

    3. Tell the Story–i.e., how you see these incidents fitting together into a pattern that has you concerned.

    4. Ask your boss to share her perspective.

    5. Be prepared to use the Contrast skill if your manager becomes defensive.

    I’d love to hear more from you all. What advice can you add?

    thanks for the feedback,

    David

  11. Forgive my Machiavellian nature, but leaving a paper trail is another option, emailing helpful recommendations to the offending thief and, when appropriate, even cc-ing your ideas to a third party. So hard to steal when it can be proven that you do not have ownership.

    1. It does not always work. My former boss refused to send emails with his requests. He wanted to give his requests only in a closed conference room with no witnesses..I am wondering how to overcome this kind of obstacle…

      1. Dear Speaking from Experience: I truly sympathize with your plight. It’s not easy dealing with a boss who lacks integrity, accountability, and respect for thier employee(s).

        However, I agree with Melinda’s response on January 30th, to keep a record of your conversations even if your boss chooses to speak behind closed doors and without any witnesses present. You can always send an email to him/her confirming your conversation(s) on such and such a date and time, with a copy to yourself. If they choose to respond in person again, confirm your discussions in writing again. It will eventually become an annoyance to your boss and they will probably object to your style of relating, at which time you can hold your crucial conversation. In the interim, get a bound book that you can’t easily tear out pages from, and log all your conversations with the facts only. You may also want to consider speaking with your HR Manager in confidence, outlining your grievance/concerns and asking them for thier suggestions/recommendations. If it’s a large company they must follow protocol and log concerns of their employees. Best of luck!

      2. OMG.. yes it happened to me too.. he wrote his requests on the white board behind the closed door, and immediately was wiping them out..to leave no trail, and to leave no responsibility for outcomes of his requests..

  12. Stealing is stealing no matter what, and being in a position of Leadership does NOT make stealing ok. Creative, Intellectual property is still property. Though I understand my best creative efforts should be given in loyalty to my company, that understanding is based on mutuality: the company will also support and recognize my best efforts. When hierarchical, business thinking wherein ONLY management benefits takes over the corporate culture, all bets are off. Management has then broken a mutual trust, and my best creativity will leave with me to another, forward-thinking, socially intelligent company – ASAP. Just because you’re in management doesn’t mean you are the brightest thing going – perhaps just had a few more life benefits (hmmm…white…male….anglo…etc). Think this poor response through again please.

  13. Thankfully, I don’t recall experiencing this situation myself. That said, I do agree with the commenters that were disappointed with the response given by David. I drew a slightly different conclusion or a derivation of what has been offerred. The Manager may be incompetent and trying to cover it up by using the experienced knowledge of her reportee to gain credibility herself within the organization. Maybe it isn’t her intention to sabotage or take away from Violated, that is simply the result of her actions–making it nonetheless just as detrimental and lacking in integrity. Or maybe this is how this Manager has gotten to each new level in her career and sees an end to her means. Whatever is going on, it sounds like a perfect opportunity to hold an accountability conversation.

  14. Dear Mr. Maxfield: In your response to ‘Violated’ regarding the credit-stealing boss, I disagree in part, with your comments. You lean towards the boss’ perspective but, as a ‘boss’ your role is to see both sides. In my opinion, you seem to think that because you hold authority, it is your given right to take advantage of others. It is not your right! Employees need to receive acknowledgment, validation and credit for their contributions, otherwise, they will begin to feel ‘violated’. You yourself, pointed out that you fall into this area with your own support staff. Word of advice, review related stores published on your Crucial Skills site, to gain better understanding of how to relate, deal respectfully and with integrity towards your employees.

  15. Your analogy of you taking lone credit for your article simply doesn’t apply here. You wrote the article and therefore you deserve the credit for it. On the other hand, if another staff member had written the article for you and you simply published it verbaitim after changing her name to yours .. then the situation would be offensive and wrong.

  16. I’m in a similar situation to Violated right now, which is why I stumbled across this article through a Google search in the first place. I’m happy to see all of the comments disagreeing with your advice. It looks like you need to address the issues in your own office before you would actually be able to help someone else with theirs. Insecure bosses cannot be effective, and it sounds like you were probably not a very effective boss at the moment when you wrote this article. Hope things have gotten better for your staff. Unless you were able to figure out how to change, I’m sure they’ve all moved on to new jobs by now. And your article just reinforces that I also probably have to do the same.

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