#21 The Merits Of Merit Stealing

TL;DR — There are none. Do your own damn work if you want credit. When you’re about to take a step towards announcing some work that a team has done, ask yourself if you contributed meaningfully, otherwise give the credit to someone else and make sure it’s clear you had no major part in it.

When I was at my last law firm, we had a practice of sending out weekly cowbell emails, this encouraged senior attorneys to give shout-outs to the more junior people doing the work. This was a remarkably refreshing practice at a law firm, which institution is generally not known for how well it treats its associates. The rules of a cowbell shout-out are: (1) you don’t mention the senior person on the deal; and (2) you list the matter and say something nice about them. This is great and allows the grunts who are doing the bulk of the dirty work, the ability to feel seen and appreciated. Did people break the rules and occasionally try to humblebrag using the cowbell emails? Of course. But from a rough count, there were much less of those instances and more instances where we were truly appreciative of the work that junior attorneys were doing.

Company-wide emails and LinkedIn posts, however, are the antithesis of a cowbell email. I’ve seen this uptick (especially from lawyers) trying to take credit for the work of their colleagues and clients in order to raise their profile. Have I been guilty of this? No, absolutely not and I certainly hope none of my posts are ever taken that way. Saying phrases like “I’m so proud to…[insert phrase describing someone else doing work]” as if to spiritually associate with the people that actually did work is, frankly, pathetic. Do the work if you want credit for it and certainly don’t detract from your team members’ efforts by making it seem like you took some part. It’s so easy, just go and do something, anything, then you can take credit for it. Write a piece on medium, no matter how useless. Be proud of it.

My fear of this culture of merit stealing is the same issue with the kid in elementary school that gets the same grade as the rest of his group who did all the work. We can’t encourage it. Everyone needs to pull their own weight, and for those that don’t, they can’t get credit. Why? As with any team, it puts a strain on the actual performers. The actual contributors a team needs and depends on. I’ve said this for years when I spotted it happening with certain teams. My friend has a great phrase for this, he says that many company’s “Lenny their best performers to death.” I was confused when he first mentioned that, but when explained that Lenny is one of the characters from “Of Mice, Of Men” it all clicked for me. Company’s don’t know how to treat their favorite employees, so they hug them to death with work.

Before you scratch that itch to shine the light on yourself in a favorable way, ask yourself if it’s better served talking about how someone else on your team or colleague who absolutely dominated some task. For those of us looking to gauge a person’s leadership skills, we aren’t looking for you to talk about yourself, that’s a red flag. We’re looking for you to shine a light on your team members and your team members shining a light on you.

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