Giving and Receiving Credit

A few weeks ago, my family and I attended Peter Pan at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts. It was far better than any high school/middle school production had any right to be, but then, this is a school that kids have to audition for in order to attend. The school focuses on the full range of the arts, so that not only were the on-stage roles filled by students, but also the backstage roles: stage managers, set decorators, costume designers, the whole gamut.

The program listed by name – and role – hundreds of students and teachers who made the show possible. It read like the credits of a Hollywood film; not the smallest contribution was overlooked. As I read through the program I noticed an ad an upcoming fundraising event, which included a credit for the name of the student who had designed the ad. It struck me that giving credit was part of the school’s ethos.

A Sign of Community Health

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite websites and online resources include a colophon or acknowledgements page[1] to recognize the people and tools that helped create the project. This could be a coincidence, but I don’t think it is. Instead, it reflects the generous spirit of the people behind these sites, as well as their gratitude. When a vocational community[2] is healthy, it seeks to share credit generously.

Sharing credit is primarily about celebrating the contributions of others, but it also creates an inclusive atmosphere for those new to the group. On the one hand, it provides a way to show respect and honor to more experienced members who have laid the groundwork for present and future work. On the other, it promises less-experienced members the opportunity to have their own accomplishments recognized when the time comes.

Resistance to Giving Credit

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. I have seen a number of organizations and companies that are reluctant to give credit. Common reasons range from the mundane to the nefarious.

  • Lack of time or awareness: It takes time to give credit. Beyond the actual process of announcing or publishing the names of the people involved, you have to gather the names and know what each person did. In order to give credit, you also have to be aware of what others are contributing. Sometimes, the leaders of a project are so wrapped up in their own work that they never consider what others are contributing.
  • Focus on the organization: In some organizations, the focus on the organization itself is so overwhelming that individual contributions are minimized. A common example are sports teams that leave players’ names off of their jerseys. If this is a consistent practice, voluntarily submitted to by all those involved, it can be an acceptable way to run an organization, especially when many are sacrificing their time and work for a greater cause [3]. Often, though, I notice that it’s only certain individuals whose identities are subsumed to the organization’s, while others are celebrated. For example, on those sports teams without player names on the jerseys, how often do their coaches go nameless?[4]
  • Arrogance: This often appears in the attitude, “Shouldn’t the privilege of participating be enough?” Again, it often comes down to the idea that some contributions are worth celebrating, while others are not.
  • Selfishness and greed: Finally, there are times when giving credit comes with monetary considerations, or when sharing credit will move the spotlight off of someone’s ego.

Being Overlooked

It’s one thing not to receive any payment, but another not to receive any credit. – Terry Pendleton, creator of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver

What about when we don’t receive credit? Here, I’m not talking about when our work has been stolen, or when we don’t receive just compensation for our contributions. Those issues lie beyond the scope of this post. How should we react when our contributions are overlooked, or when everyone except us receives kudos for work?

  • Assume positive intent. The CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi, says that the best advice she ever received came from her father: “Always assume positive intent.” Rather that assuming that the slight was intentional or personally directed at you, think of whether there could be any other explanations. Honest mistakes do happen sometimes.
  • Reality-check your reaction. Be careful with this one: some of us are too quick to dismiss our emotional response to a situation. But take some time to reflect, or talk to a trusted friend. Maybe you did receive recognition, and you just didn’t realize it. Or perhaps your contributions weren’t as substantial as you thought.
  • Be generous with your own credit. Don’t let the oversights of others prevent you from doing what’s right.
  • Refuse to become bitter. Above all, you must refuse to let your disappointment turn into bitterness. To put a Biblical concept into more modern terms:


Dwelling on the wrongs done to you is the fastest path to misery. If this is a one-time occurrence, don’t let it bother you. However, if the culture of the organization or team consistently overlooks the contributions of certain people, you’ll need to find ways to correct that issue — or find a new organization with a healthier culture.

Photo credit: Mike Hiatt via Flickr

  1. An unrepresentative sample – 5by5, Daring Fireball, Nathan Smith’s Unsemantic framework,  ↩
  2. A community centered around the practice of a particular vocation. It could be a workplace, a team working on a specific project, or a trade group.  ↩
  3. However, there aren’t nearly as many of these “greater causes” as organizational leaders seem to think.  ↩
  4. Sometimes, of course, it isn’t reasonable or practical to give public credit to all deserving parties. It’s relatively straightforward to add credits to the end of a 2-hour film, but what about a 30-second commercial? In these cases, you will still want to find appropriate ways to honor and celebrate those who have contributed to the project.  ↩

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