Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 11;   March 11, 2020: Contribution Misattribution

Contribution Misattribution


In teams, acknowledging people for their contributions is essential for encouraging high performance. Failing to do so can be expensive. Three patterns of contribution misattribution are especially costly: theft, rejection/transmigration, and eliding.
A meeting held in a long conference room. Meeting geometry is another factor that can lead to contribution misattribution.

A meeting held in a long conference room. Meeting geometry is another factor that can lead to contribution misattribution. In this scene, most of the action in the meeting is at the far end. People at the near end will tend to have greater difficulty getting their contributions recognized, because people closer to the action have an advantage owing to their location.

When people work together in small-ish meetings, participants contribute to the discussion. The purpose of the discussion can vary. It might be surfacing issues, or resolving issues, or making a little progress toward resolving issues. Most participants try to contribute to these discussions constructively. They offer proposals, information, insights — anything they believe might help. But not everyone is entirely altruistic. Many want recognition for their contributions. They want to be valued and appreciated. That's why attribution of contributions is important. And a pattern of contribution misattribution can be damaging to the organization.

When contributions are misattributed — when they're attributed to someone other than the actual contributor(s), or unattributed altogether — something bad can happen. People who seek recognition or who value recognition for their contributions might eventually become cynical, frustrated, or worse. They check out. They contribute less often. They're less likely to think deeply about the problems the team is addressing. They might even attend fewer meetings, or none at all. They adopt a what's-the-use stance.

Three patterns that can exacerbate the problem of contribution misattribution are especially costly. They are theft, rejection/transmigration, and eliding.

Co-opting and outright theft
Some ruthless individuals assert originality with respect to ideas that others created or contributed. For example, people who feel insulated from disciplinary action might claim privately to a supervisor or manager that they created what they actually obtained from others. Or they might claim that the piracy occurred in the opposite direction, portraying themselves as victims of credit theft rather than perpetrators of it.
To detect Some ruthless individuals
assert originality with
respect to ideas that others
created or contributed
even a whiff of this unethical behavior, supervisors must be intimately engaged with group dynamics. Even when they are so engaged, justice demands a careful, open investigation. Because such investigations aren't always politically possible, some supervisors decline to intervene. When that happens, the true victim of the theft pays a heavy price.
The enterprise also pays a price. When a contribution is misattributed, the enterprise commits itself to supporting individuals other than the true creators of the contribution. When the true creators move on to other activities or other organizations, the enterprise loses access to their talents in their former roles. Meanwhile, the enterprise has "placed a bet on the wrong horse." The perpetrators of the theft might not be capable of producing what many would expect to be a "second act," possibly because they didn't produce the first act. The perpetrators get organizational support, based in part on the Hot Hand Fallacy, but they might be unable to produce value to justify that support.
Rejection and transmigration
One anti-pattern that groups sometimes exhibit is what might be called rejection and transmigration. The team rejects one contribution. That's the rejection part. Then later, for the transmigration part, the team incorporates the elements of the rejected idea into a second contribution and adopts that, crediting only the authors of the second contribution.
An example might clarify the pattern. Someone (Jose) makes a contribution. Call it Contribution-J. The group rejects or dismisses it, possibly even respectfully. Time passes. Maybe in that same meeting, or in a future meeting, someone else (Ella) makes a contribution — Contribution-E — that's essentially identical to Contribution-J, with elements of other ideas that the team had been discussing, and perhaps using different terminology. The team adopts Contribution-E, and attributes it to Ella. The team doesn't attribute any element of Contribution-E to Jose.
If at some even later date, Contribution-E proves to be an expensive failure, those who championed its adoption sometimes seek protection for their reputations by transferring to others all responsibility for the adoption of Contribution-E. At that point, Jose might find himself "credited" with Contribution-E because it contained so much of Contribution-J.
The effect on Jose can be damaging to his reputation, of course. But it can be even more damaging to his morale. If he has alternatives to continuing to perform in his current role, the misattribution of his contribution can motivate him to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Many contributions aren't actually visible. They don't appear to be contributions at all. In effect, the group elides, or skips over the contribution, acknowledging instead another contribution that might not have arisen were it not for the one elided. Some elided contributions are so critical that without them, we can be fairly certain that much collaborative work would stall.
For example, when someone asks a clarifying question, some other participants who had thought that they understood the substance of the issue might discover that their understanding was incomplete, or incorrect in an important way. When that happens, having asked the question turns out to have been an important contribution. And asking such a question can require some courage, because it exposes the limits of the asker's understanding. Yet, groups acknowledge the value of answering the question more often and more readily than they acknowledge the value of asking it.
The reverse situation can also be a contribution. For example, when someone makes an assertion or offers an explanation, and the assertion or explanation is incomplete or incorrect in some way, others might ask about it or offer amendments. Usually, we credit the correctors or amenders with having made contributions. But even though the person who offered the incomplete or incorrect statement also contributed, groups tend to value the correction more often than they value the contribution that led to the correction. Stepping forward to offer what one knows can be a courageous act, even if the offerer is mistaken.
A group's consistent eliding of these contributions can lead to depressed rates of people offering them. And that can make problem-solving more difficult.

Increasing awareness of the frequency of contribution misattribution is a good first step to reducing it. Over a month or so, notice misattributions when they occur. Are there some situations when misattributions are more likely? Is there a trend? Are some groups less likely to misattribute than others are? Food for thought. Go to top Top  Next issue: Bullet Point Madness: I  Next Issue

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