Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 34;   August 22, 2018:

Dealing with Credit Appropriation

by

Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation.
The Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger, international symbol of piracy from centuries ago, still carries the same message. Credit appropriation within organizations is a form of social piracy. Because both appropriator and target are usually members of the same organization, the "theft" isn't actual piracy in the legal sense. But it is real piracy in the social sense of one person taking from another.

Credit appropriation is an unethical, devious political tactic in which the appropriator claims credit for work actually done by someone else, the target. Typically, targets feel unable to defend themselves, because their appropriators are more powerful politically, or are protected by someone more powerful than the target.

Here's an example. Let's suppose that Tatum (T = Target) is the target of Alex (A = Appropriator), the credit appropriator. When tasked with difficult problems, Alex's pattern is to seek information and ideas from Tatum. He then develops them or disguises them slightly if necessary and submits them as his own, without crediting Tatum. Tatum has confronted Alex repeatedly. She has pointed out that what he has done is unethical. At first, Alex responded that Tatum's group is a company resource, and she should just buckle down and do her job, and let him do his. He no longer responds to her objections, but he does keep requesting information and failing to credit her.

Despite feeling helpless to stop Alex or to get credit for her contributions, Tatum is not helpless. Here are three possible tactics Tatum could use, all based on issuing "whitepapers."

Speedwriting whitepapers
When Tatum receives a request for information from Alex, Tatum issues a whitepaper in response. She places it on her group's file server, and announces its general availability for anyone who wants it. General availability makes it difficult for Alex to claim its content as his own work. If she feels brave, Tatum includes in the announcement that it was written in response to a request from Alex.
This tactic Credit appropriation within
organizations is a form
of social piracy
has some limitations. First, if Tatum and Alex work in a security-oriented environment, she might be unable to distribute materials beyond her own security perimeter. In some such cases, announcements about general availability of the material would reach very few people, possibly no one other than Alex. Even so, there would at least be a record of the announcement.
Second, Tatum might be pressed for time. Even a one-page whitepaper takes time to write. And after a couple of these incidents, Alex might figure out what's happening. He might then try to outwit Tatum by asking for information more frequently than Tatum can generate whitepapers. He can up his game by asking for information he doesn't need, just to keep Tatum so busy that she can't keep responding with generally available whitepapers.
Stockpiling whitepapers
If Alex asks Tatum for information frequently enough, and if Tatum wants to keep using this tactic, she must find a way to generate whitepapers more rapidly. One approach involves creating an inventory of whitepapers in advance of Alex's requests, based on guesses of topics Alex might request. Even if she misses in her guess, she might be close enough to save some time when Alex does make his requests. And if she has insight about topics that might become relevant to Alex's work, her guesses can be more relevant.
Relaying flawed whitepapers
If Tatum can't find a way to become known as a reliable resource independent of Alex, it's necessary to deter Alex from asking her for information. One way to do that is to include misinformation along with the information she delivers to Alex, but she must do it in a way that insulates her from any recriminations when Alex encounters trouble.
For example, in response to a request from Alex, she can say, "I can't write that up right now, but I do have a document I got from Ed before he retired. It might be helpful, so I'll send it along. No guarantees though." In this way, she can send a (possibly outdated) piece that might satisfy Alex. If it does contain misinformation or outdated information, the source wasn't Tatum, but Ed, who has left the organization.
Another approach for Tatum is to create a whitepaper that contains misinformation of a special kind — it's wrong now, but at one time it was correct. She includes a watermark that clearly says "Possibly Obsolete." Then she can offer that to Alex, saying, "I can't write that up right now, but I do have a write-up from last year that might help, so I'm sending it along. No guarantees though." She's filling his request in a way that affords her some protection, while including a trap for Alex.
These tactics might not satisfy Alex. He might demand "more cooperation" from Tatum. But denying him anything at all is even riskier. By giving him something Tatum can later claim that she cooperated as best she could given the other demands on her time.
Because intentionally passing along unverified information or information known to be incorrect is questionable ethically, these tactics aren't for everyone and do carry some risk. When dealing with unethical colleagues, and straightforward approaches haven't elicited more ethical and respectful behavior, one must choose between continuing to be exploited, and reluctantly adopting tactics that one regards askance. That can be a difficult choice.

Announcing her materials as they become available can be advantageous to Tatum's own career. She might become known as a reliable resource within the organization. If that happens, Alex will need to find a new target, because his work will become recognized as derivative of Tatum's. Go to top Top  Next issue: Please Reassure Them  Next Issue

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