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Balancing Humility and the Credit You Deserve
I was lucky in that, late in my collegiate life and early in my professional life, I had a few mentors that gave me some amazing career advice that helped me to find a great job during the 2002 recession, springboard that to an even better job, and set myself up for a lifelong career path in that field (I chose to change career paths for other reasons unrelated to their great mentorship).
Two of their main pieces of advice were to be humble and give credit to others as much as possible while, at the same time, make sure people know what you’re working on.
At first glance, those two things might seem in opposition to each other, but they’re really not. You can manage to be humble and give lots of credit while, at the same time, ensuring that the people who need to know have knowledge of the things you’re doing and producing in the workplace.
This balance is an important one. Being humble and giving abundant credit to others is a vital part of being a team player in a collaborative workplace (which is the nature of most workplaces). On the other hand, if you work in an environment with lots of people, your actual contributions can easily get lost in the shuffle. People in management and your influential peers might literally have no idea what you’re working on, and that can end up in a situation where you’re sorely undervalued at work.
You have to balance the need for your work to be known with humility and sharing credit, and it’s not always an easy balance. I was lucky enough to have mentors to guide me along the way.
Here are some of the tips and tools and tactics they gave to me that helped to balance humility, sharing credit, and getting my name out there.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
This was the first and most important rule that they shared with me. You should be communicating with your immediate peers and your boss on a daily basis at the very least, and with more distant peers and other people in the management chain at least once a week. They need to know your name, and they need to be associating that name with things that are happening in the workplace that you’re involved with. (We’ll get back to how to communicate in a bit.)
If you sit silently in the corner and don’t participate in meetings, in email, in Slack, in watercooler talk, and so on, no one will know who you are or anything about you. You’ll become invisible, and the invisible person is easy to replace.
This does not mean being the center of attention. It simply means ensuring that you’re a small but active part of the conversation.
How do you do that?
Ask lots of questions.
Asking questions is one of your best tools in the workplace. Asking questions demonstrates your curiosity and desire to learn more. Asking questions demonstrates your interest and respect toward others, which raises their esteem toward you. Asking questions often demonstrates active progress on your tasks, too.
However, a key part of asking questions is listening to the answers. Pay attention to what you’re told in response to those questions. This is easily done by asking questions to which you care about the response.
(Remember, this is a type of communication, and you can overdo it. Try not to be the most talkative person in the room.)
Here are some ways to really use questions to your advantage.
Ask questions about professional topics from your experienced peers. This not only makes them feel good (because you are nodding to them as an expert on the topic) but it also demonstrates your active efforts to learn at work, which is also good. The person asking questions about professional topics is going to build a good reputation.
Ask questions of your boss about what their concerns are and how everything fits into the mission of your department and business. Your boss will greatly respect your concern for the department’s overall purpose and your desire to gather information. This works really well when you voice it in terms of making sure your work hits the criteria that your boss’s boss will be looking for.
Ask mild and nonintrusive questions about your coworkers and peers. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask them how their family is doing. Ask about their hobbies and interests outside of work. Most importantly, remember those things and follow up with them. Remember your family-oriented coworker’s children’s names and what they’re into. Remember the main hobby of many of your coworkers and ask about their latest adventures in their hobby (leading to questions like “What have you been reading lately, Cindy?” or “Hey, I saw you reading XXX book at lunch and it looks interesting. Is it good?”).
Again, the key here is to listen with genuine interest. If you really don’t care about the answer, don’t ask. If it’s just an excuse for you to talk about yourself, don’t ask. However, it’s worthwhile to try to seek out common areas of interest with your coworkers and your boss and use them as fuel for asking questions.
Be present for every team moment, such as team photos and team events and workshops.
Yes, some meetings are really dull and boring. Yes, “team building activities” and group photos and the like can be awful sometimes. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in being there.
One of my mentors once told me that even awful meetings are valuable for building teams, and he was completely correct on that. Some of the best bonding I’ve ever done is talking over a bad meeting (or a useless meeting) with coworkers afterwards.
Beyond that, there’s also the advantage of the fact that if you’re present at key team moments, the other people there at least have some chance of remembering your presence and that builds your reputation. If you’re not there, you’re guaranteeing a zero chance of being remembered.
Don’t miss team photos. Don’t miss key presentations. Don’t miss team events. Don’t miss workshops. Don’t miss any “team building exercises.” Yeah, they might not seem useful, but they’re valuable in building a team and establishing those involved as team players, which is something that’s very worthwhile.
Volunteer to present work you’re involved with, then give tons of credit at the end of the presentation.
Presentations and talks are scary, even if it’s in front of just a few friendly people. You feel like all of the focus is on you – and it is.
Here’s the thing, though: almost everyone in the crowd empathizes with that feeling. The vast majority of the people in the crowd have felt nervous at the prospect of presenting and feel stage fright to some degree when they have to present. Virtually always, they’re sympathetic with you and they’re on your side.
Having said that, the benefits of presenting are huge. Simply by presenting, you are establishing strong credit for yourself in relationship to your work. You are the one standing there talking about what happened. You are the person who will face the tough questions. You are the person who will be remembered in association with the work. Credit is a given when you’re presenting work.
That’s why it’s also a great opportunity to be humble and share credit. Every presentation that’s positive in any way should include lots of credit to everyone who helped make that work possible, and you’re better off being thorough. Include a team picture at the end of your presentation and name people off and what they did (in a few words, so that it’s quick). Make it abundantly clear that what you presented wouldn’t have been complete without their efforts. Don’t be afraid to particularly highlight a few people who gave a lot or someone who really raised their game for this project.
There’s almost nothing to lose by volunteering to give a presentation on group work and then doling out tons of credit at the end. You come off good and get lots of credit by virtue of presenting, people get the credit they yearn for, and everyone goes home happy.
The same thing is true with written reports. Volunteer to write a draft of that report under the assumption that others will help you edit it. This guarantees that you’ll be a big part of the team communication about that report and it guarantees your name will be on the final product. That’s a big win for you.
Give lots of status updates to your boss, and copy others who are relevant in on the updates.
When I started my first professional job, my boss (who was also one of my mentors) told me in no uncertain terms that I should send along a weekly update on what I was working on that week. “Just tell me what you did each day and how your big projects are coming along,” he told me. “I might not read every word, but I’ll get the big picture and it will help with performance reviews.”
So I did just that. It turned out that when I actually met with him, he was very clear on what I had been working on and how my projects were going, and they did help immensely with my performance reviews.
When I switched jobs a couple of years later, I kept up the practice with my new boss. I just sent a weekly update summarizing what I was working on and how it was relevant to my various projects. Again, when I would talk to my boss, she seemed to be up to date on what I was working on at all times and when it was time for a performance review, it was always positive.
This is a practice I will pretty much always continue in any workplace that I’m involved with moving forward. (With my current role, for example, my actual work output makes it very clear what I’m working on, so there’s little need to do this directly, but at most other jobs that’s not quite true.)
It’s not bragging. It’s just a status update, so that your boss is always in the loop regarding what you’re working on and how it’s moving forward. This usually helps your boss make relevant decisions, but even if your boss considers it too much information, it can always be filed away.
Another worthwhile factor about such updates is that they push you to keep doing relevant work. I didn’t like to ever send emails that didn’t include some kind of significant progress that I could report on. I wanted to say that I had either made a lot of progress on something or completed something of note each and every week, and that nudged me to be more productive at work.
Find a workplace mentor and do everything you can to build a strong relationship with that mentor.
A mentor in your workplace can help you navigate some of the particular issues relevant to your workplace and also provide an advocate for you in conversations where you’re not present. You need to find one in your workplace if you don’t have one.
I’ve written about finding a life mentor before and most of that advice applies here. Seek out someone who is highly regarded in your workplace and has been there for a while, ideally someone in a position that you would like to eventually achieve but you probably won’t get there for a long while. You might not be able to find this person immediately, but give it some time and keep your eye out.
When you find a potential mentor, ask that person out to lunch and simply say that you’re trying to find your way in your career and that they’ve achieved many of the things you hope to eventually achieve and you’d like to learn from them. Ask for advice and ask all of the follow-up questions you can think. Listen, and do what they suggest. Show appreciation all along the way. Keep in regular contact with your mentor and keep asking questions and listening to advice.
What will likely happen is that your mentor will toss some things your way to see what you’re capable of or to give you opportunities. These might not seem obvious, but tackle them with relish. If your mentor asks for help, give it in abundance.
What you’ll find is that if you keep the relationship positive and give as much as you can, your mentor will end up being a valuable advocate for you when you’re not around. Your name will be in conversations where it’s treated with respect and value and that can do nothing but help you in the workplace. You’ll be getting credit without having to talk yourself up at all and that’s invaluable.
A mentor-mentee relationship is one where both people get a lot of value. You give that value by listening, asking questions, following advice, and handling things that your mentor asks of you. They repay that value by giving great advice, opening a few doors for you, and subtly being your advocate. You both win.
Attend meetings, pay attention, take notes, and speak up by asking questions and bringing up relevant points.
Meetings are boring for many people. They can feel like a hassle that gets in the way of your actual work.
That perspective is a trap.
Instead, look at meetings as an opportunity to make sure that you’re a known quantity. Be present at meetings. Take notes on what’s actually happening and pay attention. When there’s an opportunity to ask a question or give feedback, do so. If you think of something to ask or a good point to bring up while someone else is talking, write it down and then use it later.
Your goal in any meeting that you’re required to be at should be to speak up at least once with a relevant question or a useful point. You should aim should be to be involved enough with what’s going on that you can actually ask a good question or bring up a good point, and that requires focus and attention. For me, taking notes is the best way to do that.
Not only that, almost every meeting you’re at will include a few nuggets of information that are valuable to you, ones that you’d probably miss if your focus were elsewhere.
Come up with solutions to problems, spell out your solution in detail, offer to solve the problem, and share your proposal with your boss and others to whom it is relevant.
If you notice a problem in the workplace, figure out a potential solution to it on your own that has minimal cost in terms of time and money, then write up that solution and share it with your boss. Offer to implement that solution yourself if it’s within your skill level.
Going with a “solution first” attitude for handling problems moves you from seeming like a person who complains to a person who notices issues and wants to fix them. You get attention as a problem solver rather than as a complainer, even if your offered solution isn’t a perfect one.
This, of course, centers around genuine workplace problems. Don’t just seek out problems to solve for the sake of solving them. Wait until genuine issues surface, then come in with a solution-first suggestion regarding that problem.
Avoid saying anything critical of other coworkers unless specifically asked to by a supervisor.
Being negative about coworkers and bosses almost always ends up having a negative impact on you, whether you directly see it or not. Undoubtedly, it can feel good to criticize a problematic coworker, but in doing so, you paint yourself as a person who will criticize others behind their back, thus reducing your workplace trust. Outside of some extremely cancerous workplaces, there are few things that will erode your respect in the workplace than consistently talking negatively about a coworker behind their back. This will quickly erode much of the credit and goodwill you’ve built up through the other actions listed here.
A much better approach is to just listen to negative talk without comment and, when asked for your opinion, just feign ignorance of the subject. “I haven’t spent enough time around person X to really see it. You guys know more than I do.” That’s usually a good way to handle lit.
On the other hand…
Always have something genuinely positive you can say about all of your coworkers when called upon.
Try to think of positive things you can say about every person in your office. If you don’t know that person well enough to think of a positive thing to say, then that’s a relationship you know you should work on.
This serves a number of purposes. For starters, it gives you the ability to immediately have something positive to say about anyone in the office should you be asked about that person. Second, it provides a great tool for evaluating which workplace relationships are weak and which ones are strong. If you can’t identify something positive to say about someone in the workplace, that’s a relationship you need to build, because they likely don’t know who you are either. It also gives you something powerful to say whenever you’re in a situation to give credit to others, as noted above in the bit about presentations.
Know all of your peers well enough to be able to say positive things about them. In that process, you’ll probably give them enough to be able to say positive things about you.
Then, say those positive things when you get a chance. It’s likely, then, that word will get around and they’ll say positive things about you (that isn’t a guarantee, but positivity is going to get you a lot farther than negativity will).
What’s the key to almost all of these strategies? Communication! You need to be willing to communicate in a variety of ways in your workplace, even if it feels uncomfortable to you.
You need to be willing to communicate to your boss what you’re working on and your solutions to problems that you observe.
You need to be willing to verbally communicate with coworkers, to learn more about them and build some rapport with them.
You need to be able to communicate in meetings, to present, and to give written summaries and reports of your work (and others).
If you’re not willing to do those things, it’s going to be hard for you to receive credit for your work. The people who communicate are going to get most of the credit, regardless of whether they directly claim that credit or not.
The person who speaks up at meetings is going to get known, not the person who says nothing. The person who makes it clear what they’re working on is going to be known for getting things done, not the person who says nothing. The person who presents is going to be a face for the project, not the person who hides in the corner.
You can do all of the great work in the world, but if you’re not willing to communicate, someone else will take credit for it, whether they do it directly or indirectly. It’s up to you to get the credit you deserve.
You can claim that credit with humility, however. By simply reporting what you’ve done, presenting that work, and giving credit for all of the help from everyone else, you’re both claiming credit and being humble. That’s a powerful mix that will help greatly with your career success.