Misplaced Professional and Other Credit: Giving and Taking It Where It Isn’t Due

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RUBBER-TREE SERVANTPraise is a great motivator. But it can also be awfully demotivating—when it is not given when,where and to whomever or whatever it is really due, at least partially, if not primarily or exclusively.

You close the deal, your boss takes or gets the credit; you do the genetics research or make the discovery—your faculty adviser publishes your results under his name. You get the idea.

Misplaced credit is a fact of life, in all spheres, and happens all the time, not just in business and academia. “You didn’t build that!”, as a shot at proud entrepreneurs, including company founders and other biz titans, is a political case in point.

With its crypto-socialist implications and motivation, that catchphrase declares that not only did these entrepreneurs have outside help—from the blue, white, black (e.g., priests, parsons and police) and green-collar (military and farming) classes in the creation of their enterprises), but also that

1. That help counted more than their own efforts, decisions and commitments.


2. They had absolutely nothing to do with creating those enterprises (an obvious overstatement that nonetheless is literally what “You didn’t build that!” ambiguously means, absent “alone” or “at all” tagged on the end).

Praise the Boss!

This kind of misplaced credit is evidenced even in domains much less worldly than business, economics and politics. Take theology for example. At great risk to himself,a brave firefighter darts into a crumbling home engulfed in flames and billowing smoke to rescue a screaming child trapped in the inferno. Drying tears of joy and relief from her cheeks, the child’s overwhelmed mom locks her wide, wild eyes with the smoked eyes of the fireman and exclaims, “Praise the Lord!”

Now, that would be fair, if the Lord then praised the fireman (while completely skirting the contradiction in crediting both irresistible divine intervention and the free will of the firefighter for the happy outcome).

In precise analogy, imagine a boss who took or was given credit for a big success of yours, but never the blame for your failures or his. Suppose he took or was given the credit because he hired you or because he provided the office space and secretarial support that facilitated that singular, perhaps unrepeated (“miraculous”?) success.

If you were a philosophy or science graduate, you might try pointing out to his admirers and your implicit minimizers that at best your boss be cited as is a remote cause of your success, not a proximate (immediate) cause. The civil unrest that caused the urban riot that “caused” the house fire did so as a remote cause; but the individual, match and the gasoline that lit it were among the proximate, most immediate causes (along with the ambient abundant oxygen).

Your parents are a (not the) remote cause—i.e., a much earlier contributing causal factor—of your graduating from any school, if only because they created you; but, the proximate, more immediate causes include the incentives the school offered, your estimation of the hazards of not graduating, and the vision you have had in more recent years, framed for your future.

In alternative “philosophical” terms, even though your parents, God, your boss, your copy of Catcher in the Rye, or your school have (been believed to have) played roles that made them (seem like) at least necessary conditions for your accomplishments, none of them has been, by itself, sufficient to create, explain, predict or take full or most credit for your success. (In many, if not most instances, “influences” are neither necessary nor sufficient, being merely contributing or replaceable factors.)

If any them were to have been sufficient, not a single action, emotion or decision on your part would have played a role in your success, or, at best would have been the twitchings of a puppet on the strings of that master cause and therefore no more deserving of praise than an elevator that safely and quickly soars to the top floor. That’s the unique problem with divine kudos: “Praise the Lord!”,”Praise Zeus!”, etc., always suggest more than a merely contributory role, instead positing a controlling role for divine intervention. One reason for that is that a contributory role is comparatively trivial, inasmuch as commonplace asphalt contributes to the heroism of firemen.

Praise the Rubber Trees!

In any case, a merely contributory role would put divine involvement and praise on the same humble footing or rooting as that of a rubber tree. Why? Return to the scene of the house fire, same details, except for one: Now the mother exclaims, “Praise rubber trees!”—again, at the expense of acknowledging and praising the heroism of the fireman. Why rubber trees?

Well, obviously because the trees provided the rubber for the tires that transported the fireman to the scene (just as asphalt, equally deserving of a hosanna, paved the roads on which the truck arrived).

Ah, you reply that, if the rubber trees didn’t exist, we would have found some other source of or replacement for rubber.But if a creator god or the gods didn’t exist we would have none whatsoever, since, presumably, they created everything (except the intention and act of arson, of course—which we can selectively cherry-pick and blame on human free and evil will).

So, we just have to face the truth: “Daddy did it!” is, like “The rubber trees did it!”, insufficient, problematic and therefore inadequate as either an explanation, justification or grounds for praise (or blame)—whether in a contributing or controlling role.

Praise J.P. Morgan Chase!

To viscerally get that argument through one more example, just imagine that as you left the commencement stage on graduation day, diploma in hand, robe bursting with pride and confidence about your future and career, all well-wishers said to you, “Praise J.P. Morgan Chase bank (and your student loans they approved)!”—while forced to admit that as the gods of finance, bankers have also approved some very bad, indeed catastrophic loans (that created the 2008 financial tsunami that rivaled the Biblical Great Flood in the damage done).

Because anything or anyone that deserves or manages to win praise should exist in a category of things that theoretically could also, under some circumstance, be blamed (unlike rocks, which deserve and usually get neither, unless on an engagement ring), it stands to reason that even if god(s) don’t deserve all, most or any of the praise for what we accomplish in our professional, public or private lives, they can be blamed for at least one thing.

Creating the bankers.

By Michael Moffa