Debunking the “It Doesn’t Matter Who Gets the Credit” Myth

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It happens all the time.

You’ll find yourself in a planning session with a group of leaders, when all of a sudden someone will use one of the well-worn leadership axioms, “Well, just think of what our team can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit!”

That quote is usually attributed to Harry Truman.

Well, with respect to both Truman and this leader who quoted him, this sentiment is just wrong.

It really does matter who gets the credit.

The sentiment underlying the statement is noble enough. The idea is that we don’t want our cultures to be infected by grandstanding players, vying for individual attention. I get that.

But the idea that you, as a leader, ought to be unaware as to who keeps coming up with your team’s best ideas is not in the best interest of your team, your culture or your leadership.

It really does matter who gets the credit.

You need to know the relative strengths of your team players. You need to know who it is that is consistently, and disproportionately, generating the initiatives that are creating the most ‘wins’ for your organization. And for that to happen it needs to be “okay” in your culture for those top performers to be recognized.

They need to get the credit.

Jack Welch calls this ‘differentiation’. On his website, Welch puts it this way; “Companies win when their managers make a clear and meaningful distinction between top and bottom performing businesses and people.”

If you have bought into the idea that “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit” step back and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I know who is generating our best ideas?

  • Do I know who is launching our most successful initiatives?

  • Do I know who is producing the most results?

  • Do I know who is the most encouraging person on our team?

  • Do I know who is going out of their way to support their teammates’ projects?

If you do, give them the credit.

The whole team will ultimately benefit if credit is given where credit is due.

the author

Scott Cochrane

Vice President- International, Global Leadership Network. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam & Robin, Amy, Dave, Willow & Olive and John, Fiona & Will. Lifelong learner.

8 comments

  1. Scott you’ve actually missed the profundity in Truman’s saying; “”It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”. He is referring to the attitude of the individual producing the performance not the observer.
    I would pose the question; what is most important? the recognition or the result? when one fixates on recognition (getting credit) it robs from the objective and is, ultimately, elusive.

  2. Thanks for weighing in Stephen. In fact, I haven’t missed the central point of what Truman was saying. I simply disagree with the implications of it. In many organizations this has been taken to mean that assigning credit weakens the integrity of the organization. If teams were to operate withing the relatively tight parameters of Truman’s original intent, that would indeed be healthy. However, insofar as many have taken this to mean that no credit should ever be assigned, this has been done to the detriment of a team’s optimal performance.

  3. Scott, I think Stephen has a good point. As a manager, yes, one should recognize success and accomplishment, be it of individuals or teams. But, as a leader, you can get much more done if you hand off ideas to others for them to run with, while you perform the needed ground softening and top cover and let them take any glory. (Of course, as a leader, you should help where needed and be willing to take the blame should things go wrong – Simon Sinek is the latest I know making this point).

  4. Hey Keith, thanks for weighing in. I don’t disagree with the central point you, and Stephen, are making. But in my view these side-step the principle I was raising. The original quote is to imagine team in which “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit”. I stand by my assertion that it does matter. When a new innovation or creative approach is developed, it is incumbent upon the leader to know who it is who came up with that idea. It matters who gets the credit. A leader should be able to stand up in front of the entire organization and say, “We are grateful to Sue for coming up with this great idea” without fear that someone will misappropriate Truman’s quote and say, “Hey, wait a minute…It doesn’t matter who gets the credit…”

    Great leadership discussion. Thanks for these thoughtful contributions.

  5. I think you make a valid point about leadership and management. I don’t think it necessarily follows that “…someone will misappropriate Truman’s quote…” I think if you get very literal–word-for-word–with Truman’s quote it says, ”It is amazing what YOU can accomplish if YOU do not care who gets the credit.”. His comment was about motivation (which Robert Townsends says is a door that locks from the inside), while your response is about appreciation. Both are valid. Anyway, thanks for stimulating some valuable thinking!

  6. Thanks Jim. When I first posted the article, it was in response to a concerning trend I was seeing, whereby team leaders were wielding Truman’s quote as a tool to to ensure no credit was ever given to anyone, for anything!

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