Debunking the “It Doesn’t Matter Who Gets the Credit” Myth

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It happens all the time.

You’ll find yourself in a planning session with a group of leaders, when all of a sudden someone will use one of the well-worn leadership axioms, “Well, just think of what our team can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit!”

That quote is usually attributed to Harry Truman.

Well, with respect to both Truman and this leader who quoted him, this sentiment is just wrong.

It really does matter who gets the credit.

The sentiment underlying the statement is noble enough. The idea is that we don’t want our cultures to be infected by grandstanding players, vying for individual attention. I get that.

But the idea that you, as a leader, ought to be unaware as to who keeps coming up with your team’s best ideas is not in the best interest of your team, your culture or your leadership.

It really does matter who gets the credit.

You need to know the relative strengths of your team players. You need to know who it is that is consistently, and disproportionately, generating the initiatives that are creating the most ‘wins’ for your organization. And for that to happen it needs to be “okay” in your culture for those top performers to be recognized.

They need to get the credit.

Jack Welch calls this ‘differentiation’. On his website, Welch puts it this way; “Companies win when their managers make a clear and meaningful distinction between top and bottom performing businesses and people.”

If you have bought into the idea that “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit” step back and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I know who is generating our best ideas?

  • Do I know who is launching our most successful initiatives?

  • Do I know who is producing the most results?

  • Do I know who is the most encouraging person on our team?

  • Do I know who is going out of their way to support their teammates’ projects?

If you do, give them the credit.

The whole team will ultimately benefit if credit is given where credit is due.

the author

Scott Cochrane

Vice President- International, Global Leadership Network. Love Jesus, Nora, Adam & Robin, Amy, Dave, Willow & Olive and John, Fiona & Will. Lifelong learner.

23 comments

  1. Scott you’ve actually missed the profundity in Truman’s saying; “”It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”. He is referring to the attitude of the individual producing the performance not the observer.
    I would pose the question; what is most important? the recognition or the result? when one fixates on recognition (getting credit) it robs from the objective and is, ultimately, elusive.

  2. Thanks for weighing in Stephen. In fact, I haven’t missed the central point of what Truman was saying. I simply disagree with the implications of it. In many organizations this has been taken to mean that assigning credit weakens the integrity of the organization. If teams were to operate withing the relatively tight parameters of Truman’s original intent, that would indeed be healthy. However, insofar as many have taken this to mean that no credit should ever be assigned, this has been done to the detriment of a team’s optimal performance.

  3. Scott, I think Stephen has a good point. As a manager, yes, one should recognize success and accomplishment, be it of individuals or teams. But, as a leader, you can get much more done if you hand off ideas to others for them to run with, while you perform the needed ground softening and top cover and let them take any glory. (Of course, as a leader, you should help where needed and be willing to take the blame should things go wrong – Simon Sinek is the latest I know making this point).

  4. Hey Keith, thanks for weighing in. I don’t disagree with the central point you, and Stephen, are making. But in my view these side-step the principle I was raising. The original quote is to imagine team in which “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit”. I stand by my assertion that it does matter. When a new innovation or creative approach is developed, it is incumbent upon the leader to know who it is who came up with that idea. It matters who gets the credit. A leader should be able to stand up in front of the entire organization and say, “We are grateful to Sue for coming up with this great idea” without fear that someone will misappropriate Truman’s quote and say, “Hey, wait a minute…It doesn’t matter who gets the credit…”

    Great leadership discussion. Thanks for these thoughtful contributions.

  5. I think you make a valid point about leadership and management. I don’t think it necessarily follows that “…someone will misappropriate Truman’s quote…” I think if you get very literal–word-for-word–with Truman’s quote it says, ”It is amazing what YOU can accomplish if YOU do not care who gets the credit.”. His comment was about motivation (which Robert Townsends says is a door that locks from the inside), while your response is about appreciation. Both are valid. Anyway, thanks for stimulating some valuable thinking!

  6. Thanks Jim. When I first posted the article, it was in response to a concerning trend I was seeing, whereby team leaders were wielding Truman’s quote as a tool to to ensure no credit was ever given to anyone, for anything!

  7. I agree with others that the central point is that the people taking the action should not be focusing on recognition of the action but instead on getting the right result. That said, I agree with you that for a good LEADER it is important to know who did what. I think it’s better to explain it thusly: (the following is true) I have several projects that I’ve worked on that I genuinely cared that they turned out well and had no expectation or thought of being lauded for my efforts. I was not bothered that I did not receive effusive praise or rewards for what I did, I don’t care that I didn’t get “credit”, HOWEVER, I did care a great deal if someone ELSE got credit for my work. If you as a leader preach the good of the team, and you also LIVE that ethos, then I think it’s ok, but if you reward the wrong person or clearly reap the rewards of your subordinates labor without rewarding THEM, then you will harbor resentment.

  8. That’s a good and fair summary Greg. Because the original quote from Truman has garnered such universal acclaim, it was a risk to point out the dangers of mis-applying the quote in a leadership context. Having, more than once, encountered leaders who refused to acknowledge strong performers based on an inaccurate application of the quote, I attempted to raise a faint warning sign with this post. As I say, your comment has appropriately right-sized the discussion.

  9. Good point, Scott.
    Over the years, I’ve had many great ideas that I’ve shared with others who took the credit and reaped the rewards.
    On the other hand, realizing I don’t have a lot of time left in this life, I contemplated all the great ideas of the last thousand years – they are hardly remembered.
    In another thousand years, all of my ideas, and those people who claimed those ideas as their own, will be forgotten.

  10. The change from Truman’s original quote “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit” to “think of what our team can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit.” actually is an inversion of Truman’s original statement. Since Truman used the word “you” twice, he was indicating that he didn’t care if he got the credit, but he didn’t care if others got the credit. The modified version says that nobody on the team should care about getting the credit. However, if nobody on the team gets the credit, the credit goes to the team leader. In other words, in the examples you quoted, the team leader was claiming all the credit.

    In a similar move, the quote “Sometimes it is better to act first and ask for forgiveness later” became changed to “Sometimes it is easier to act first and ask forgiveness later”. The original quote doesn’t say that you should expect forgiveness. It originally applied to the military. You take the action for the good of your unit and you know that there will be a chance of dying. If you die, you don’t care if you receive forgiveness. And if you’re willing to face death, why should lesser penalties bother you.

    In a similar way, a lot of quotes became modified in a way that would defend bad management practices.

    I would also be a little reluctant to quote Jack Welch. I was at GE while Jack Welch was in charge, and I would say that most of the managers, including managers, didn’t believe that Welch actually meant it. Part of it was the lack of penalty for those that were involved in serious infractions. In one case, an employee survey indicated that very few people trusted management or felt that they acted fairly. The General Manager (whose unit made up two thirds of the group for the survey) says that it had to be the other people in the survey because morale was high in his group and people under him trusted him. The comments by the people leaving the presentation gave a much different impression. The only real management response was to not have any more employee surveys.

  11. Hi Bradley, you have raised a number of thoughtful points. When I first posted this article, it was in response to a growing trend to censure anyone who attributed credit to someone for a “job well done”. The reason cited often was a misapplication of the Truman quote. Misapplied, or misquoted, the Truman quote can be made to stifle expressions of recognition.

  12. You wrote this very well, and your comments make a lot of sense. As with others, I agree that you are misapplying the quote. I agree that leaders need to recognize those great contributors within their teams, however the idea of taking credit is the central theme here. The team mentality of winning and losing together, is the concept in central theme of this quote. The idea of political positioning, assuring one’s own personal political gain, and selfish ambition are pathways to little success and possible failure. There’s no room for that within a team framework, and that is the central theme of the quote. By the way, Truman wasn’t the first with this quote, it was actually a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Strickland. Thought you might find that interesting.

  13. Truman was referring to individuals, not groups or teams. I appreciate your insight into team dynamics, but using this quote as a segue wasn’t your best idea.

  14. You did miss the point of the quotation, as you eventually seem to recognize. It is about not caring if you get credit for what gets accomplished, not about how a team leader should respond. There is no implication that a good leader doesn’t recognize who is contributing, if someone read it that way they’re just wrong. If you had said you wanted to make clear that Truman was talking about the person initiating the success not angling for credit, not that a leader should not acknowledge achievements, that would have been accurate. Owning your mistakes and not trying to smooth them over with verbiage is also important.

  15. Thanks for weighing in Mark. What initially prompted the article in the first place was being in a leadership meeting where someone was about to point out a key contribution made by a team mate. But the leader immediately jumped in and said, “Hey, we don’t give credit around here. Remember, think how much we can accomplish of we don’t care who gets the credit.” I began listening for such mis-application of the Truman quote in other contexts, and began to notice it popping up with concerning frequency. Truman was right. Mis-applying it is wrong, and must be called out.

  16. I realize I’m mostly piling on here, but the volume of response has its own story to tell. You’ve backtracked quite a bit in this comment thread, but you’re sticking to this idea that Truman’s quote is frequently misinterpreted. I obviously agree that good people and good work deserve recognition, but only a poor leader or misguided work culture would interpret Truman’s quote in the way you seem to think is prevalent. In fact, there are two separate ideas at work here: 1) the team that is selfless and deeply focused on the success of a common goal, and 2) the leader who makes sure that good work is recognized and rewarded. These two ideas are not in competition. If you keep running into this misinterpretation of Truman’s quote, I’d gently suggest you’re running in the wrong circles!

  17. I’d further add, to echo Bradley above, that leaning on Jack Welch as a voice of wisdom is curious and outdated. Much of his management style has been either discredited or overtaken by more evolved leadership styles. Welch was a product of his era, when corporations were overwhelming white and male, when the idea of work-life balance was scoffed at, and when there was no long game … just a never-ending death march toward the next quarterly profit. GE is a faded giant, and Jack Welch’s short-sighted leadership is a big reason why.

  18. Hey Scott; you’re back! just so I can relieve you of the sense that you are “piling on” (great term), I’ll make my response fairly quick. What prompted the article in the first place was that, after close to 40 years in leadership, working with organizations in more than 50 countries, I had simply experienced too often that the the “it doesn’t matter who gets the credit” was being misused. I think the balance of your newer comments essentially retreads earlier points, so for the sake of brevity, you can simply re-visit my earlier responses. Thanks for engaging in the discussion.

  19. It’s no surprise terrible managers would misrepresent the spirit of this quote.

    My interpretation of the quote: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credits.” Focus on the word, “YOU”.
    It’s not so much WHO gets credit, its focused on if you care if YOU get the credit.
    A good leader hands out the credit to those who deserve it and probably even those that don’t deserve it. The key is that the good leader doesn’t care if they themselves get the credit or not. They only care if the thing gets accomplished.

    So I have a question for you reader, think of something you want to accomplish. The most grandiose idea you can come up with.
    Now say you go out and accomplish it, do you need your name attached to it or are you ok if someone else gets the credit?

    If you care, then that will limit how much you can accomplish because “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when YOU do not care who gets the credits.”

    Sure, maybe someone else does cares (as in the examples above) so then give them the credit. Give everyone the credit who cares right? Because all you care about is that it gets done, you don’t care who (or if you) get the credit. Just give the credit to the people who do “care” and move on to the next accomplishment.

  20. This has been an incredibly thought provoking thread on Truman’s quote. I was looking for a motivational quote to use for a space where my leader tasked several groups on our team to accomplish a goal. Most team members across the organization balked at the task and dug their heels in the mud about getting it done. As I worked on the presentation, there was a space that required a motivational quote. I chose the Truman quote because I did the work and I don’t care about getting the credit. In this context, I am the “You.” What matters most is that together we see project through to completion and it’s my hope that my initial offering will produce a more complete and thoughtful project, because as another commenter wrote, the point of ideas is to share them so they inspire and provoke other ideas. Keep doing great work, the recognition is yours whether someone puts you on a pedestal for it or not.

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