What do Wynonie Harris, Arthur Crudup and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton have in common? – They all did the hard work but Elvis got the credit (and the royalties).
In the 50s, black american rock and blues music was segregated to the R&B charts. These served as test markets for new songs. The songs were then covered by white artists who would generate sales volumes. So Wynonie recorded Good Rocking Tonight, Arthur That’s All Right and Big Mama Hound Dog. In most cases the original performer withered or at least never made it to the level of their imitator.
There are countless parallels in the corporate world: if you Google “My Boss takes the credit” you will find dozens of business agony aunts dispensing advice to anguished, helpless or simply angry ‘victims’. Some organisations reinforce this type of behaviour: they see it as part of apprenticeship: “one day, you will be a Partner and you too will be allowed to steal ideas from your subordinates…” Obviously, this is not purely a corporate issue: “One day you will have Tenure and you will be able to steal ideas from your students (and you won’t even have to pay them)…”
From a leadership perspective, what should be done about this situation? I see this as a two questions:
(i) is giving credit desirable?
And (ii) if it is, how do you make it happen?
Both questions find their answer in good old Behavioural Psychology: Everything we know about reinforcement is that positive feedback, particularly public feedback is the most effective way to both motivate and develop people. So if you simply want to squeeze the lemon and not develop the person, then go ahead, keep the credit aligned with the hierarchy. A situation where it would be easy to do would be any form of internship for example. However, in the ongoing War for Talent, development is the key to retention.
Only the rarefied salaries at companies like Goldman Sachs can hope to compete using money as the sole motivator. And money is only one of 9 key career motivators, so you would be wrong about 88% of the time! For the rest of us, development and credit are key to building a healthy talent pool. So how do you stop a bad habit? Again, Behavioural Psychology provides the answer: ruthlessly reward the ‘right’ behaviour and consistently punish its absence. Do it often enough and everybody will get the message. Gold stars and red cards should not be limited to the classroom or the football pitch. Our advice to our client is to design an appropriatebehavioural programme, including hard metrics for senior people such as linking their bonus to desirable behaviours. For them too, positive reinforcement just works!