As I write this series of articles I entitled the Cardinal Sins of Management, I find myself unable to decide which of them is more irritating, infuriating, frustrating, or just plain unacceptable from the standpoint of a subordinate. Suffice to say this one — taking credit for the work of others — is right up there near the top.
As a Freshmen in college, I vividly recall the number of times one of my professors made plain to us the definition of plagiarism and elaborated upon the many forms in which they had experienced it from their students. The penalties at my university for plagiarism were quite severe as, I concluded, was the likelihood of eventually getting caught should I be dishonest and stupid enough to give it a try. I trust most of today’s managers had similar experiences at some point during their educational journey.
The core message we all received regarding taking credit for something done by someone else is that it is DISHONEST and WRONG.
In the workplace, this cardinal sin by a manager is rarely as blatant — and easily detectable — as trying to pass off a “Reader’s Digest” article as your class term paper, or lifting whole passages from some other author’s work and including them in an organizational memo. No, unfortunately this cardinal sin is more insidious because it usually happens behind the proverbial closed-door when a manager passes off to their boss an idea or accomplishment of a subordinate or colleague as their own. In many cases, the innocent victim of this lie remains unaware unless by some chance accident they happen upon the truth.
Like all my discussions of management misdeeds, I leave it to others to speculate upon a manager’s motivation for engaging in dishonest or avoidance behavior. In this instance, I believe it is more important to focus upon the two critical reasons why this particular cardinal sin is so harmful and potentially self-destructive when engaged in by a manager.
First, one of a managers most important responsibilities is the showcasing of his or her subordinate’s talents, potential and accomplishments, especially for upper management and one’s customers. Without their manager’s willingness to give honest credit where it is due, a subordinate’s path to career success and advancement becomes substantially and unfairly harder. Taking behind-the-back credit for what one’s subordinates think and do leaves the subordinate in the dark, abrogates one of a managers most fundamental responsibilities, and represents a betrayal of the trust and dependency inherent in the superior-subordinate relationship.
Second, because this cardinal sin — like each of the others — tends to become an habitual pattern, one can count on the fact that it almost certainly will come to light eventually. A subordinate, colleague or superior will at some point uncover an instance or two of misrepresenting the true author of something and call into question the manager’s capacity for honesty. If this happens often enough, the damage to a manager’s reputation and career can become permanent.
Of all the personal qualities I believe we never wish to have questioned — whether we are managers or not — one is our honesty. Once our honesty is called into doubt and backed by facts, the damage is very difficult to undo. It can take a great deal of time and contrary evidence to rebuild the trust others will again have in what we say.
Couple the potential personal damage with the harm done to those whose accomplishments and ideas were dishonestly claimed as one’s own, and it is easy to see why the best managers avoid committing this cardinal sin. Moreover, the best managers intuitively understand that part of their reputation for managerial excellence fundamentally depends upon their willingness to place the credit for things squarely upon the shoulders of those who authored them.