One Sure-fire Way to Be a Better Leader

Don't focus on keeping score. Good leadership means playing for results, not your status.
January 25, 2012

Harry S. Truman once said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” These words are echoed by John Donovan, chief technology officer at AT&T, in a recent New York Times interview, "Strive for Results, Not for the Accolades." One of the leadership lessons Donovan learned in his career is that "people appreciate you when you play for results, and not for your role on the team," he said in the interview. He added that he learned "that giving credit away, deflecting credit, was an effective thing to do."

It is an admirable quality for a leader to share credit for what her company accomplishes. More often than not, it's the other way around: People are very protective of their contributions and some make it an art to keep score. However, this diminishes rather than enhances our status. It takes a big man (or woman) to feel secure enough to let the light shine on others. So to help you be that big leader, here are some tips on how to share credit for your company's successes.

Put yourself in others' shoes

Think about a situation when a leader gave you credit for something you accomplished. How did this feel? Chances are it made you feel good about yourself, about your work. It made you feel proud. As a leader, you have the power to bestow these feelings on every team member who deserves to be recognized. A small effort in genuinely sharing credit boosts people's spirit.

Show others that you value them

When we give credit to someone for their work, we send a message that we notice them and that what they do is important. Studies have shown that an increase in productivity results when individuals are singled out and made to feel valued. Having a leader who makes a point to notice what each person contributes to the team, no matter what position the person occupies in the corporate hierarchy, is a powerful way to create employee engagement.

Hone your awareness of team members' different linguistic styles

In a Harvard Business Review article, "Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why," linguist Deborah Tannen states, "Most of us judge others’ competence—as well as their confidence and authority—by the way they talk. Based on what we hear, we decide whether a boss’, peer’s, or subordinate’s ideas merit our attention and support."

The problem with this, as Tannen's research shows, is that we all have different linguistic styles. For example, someone's style may be to use "we" rather than "I" to describe accomplishments because "I" may seem too self-promoting. The unintended consequences of this style, explains Tannen, is that a person "doesn’t get credit for accomplishments and may hesitate to offer good ideas in the future." As a leader, you should develop an awareness of people's speaking styles so that you don't unintentionally discount someone's contributions because of their understated manner.

Allow people to sign their work

Every artist likes to sign his painting. Similarly, every worker likes to put his personal stamp on his own work. Don't deprive people of this privilege. If you submit a report that was drafted by one of your team members, find ways to include the person's name somewhere in the report.

Make sharing credit a part of the meeting agenda

This idea comes from Mike Robbins in his book, Focus on the Good Stuff: The Power of Appreciation. Periodically, start off meetings with team members sharing all the good things that have happened since the last meeting. Examples include specific acknowledgments of individuals, announcement of successes—even small ones—or expressing gratitude for the team in general. This is a quick activity that can boost morale and make it easier for those who are unaccustomed to giving appreciation.

Pass on third-party praise

If a client or other stakeholder praises one of your team members, no matter how small the praise might seem to you, make sure that you pass on the comments to the individual concerned. Forward complimentary e-mails and add a personal note to congratulate the person and let them know what this means to you personally and to the department. It only takes a few moments and it means a lot to the recipient.

Tell the story

When you share credit, make an effort to give the context and some of the details of the individual's contribution. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner state in their book, Encouraging the Heart: A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others, "Stories put a human face on success. They put the behavior in a real context and make standards more than statistics." They honor the person's contributions and set the standard for others.

Recognition is an energy booster; it has a ripple effect. When we are seen to share the responsibility for successes with others, it encourages other team members to do the same. When enough people start to do this on a team, it becomes the norm, a part of the team culture. The result is a better place to work for everyone. It is also a surefire way to become a better leader.  As Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: "When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'"

Illustration by Cannaday Chapman