An airline's employees put in yeoman's efforts and lots of overtime last year to keep planes on time and operations running smoothly, despite cutbacks in the rough economy.
But rather than praise the workers for their sacrifices, a regional manager who was their boss took all the credit when reporting to his own managers. To top it all off, he then bragged in a magazine article that his efforts were central to the airline's success - making no mention of the troops.
How did employees react to their leader so blatantly stealing the spotlight? They were angry. Even the most loyal among them started to call in sick as often as once a week, refused to work any more overtime and started bickering among themselves, which led to customers complaining about surly attitudes.
It's a story of credit-hogging by the boss - and just one of many told by human resources managers to researchers doing a new study on leadership in the wake of the recession.
While leaders may be too often tempted to steal the spotlight to defend their jobs and to seek whatever advancement may be possible in a tight economy, taking all the credit can backfire, choking off the employee performance that is essential for an organization's recovery, the study's author and other career experts warn.
The problem is becoming glaring because many employees are being asked to do more with fewer resources, and companies have less money for rewards, says study author Shawn Bakker, a psychologist and research leader for Psychometrics. So these days, credit is the best currency a boss can spend on his or her troops, he says.
In the past, "people were more willing to accept working for a credit-hogging boss because they were getting good pay and bonuses to do it," he says. "But in today's economy, people are often being asked to do more heavy lifting and leaders are pushing harder to get people to perform, but with no additional pay or perks to show for it. "
In the study, 61 per cent of 517 Canadian HR managers polled said they felt leaders in their organizations were stealing too much credit for accomplishments in what is actually a team effort.
As a result, 83 per cent of those who reported that leaders were hogging the spotlight said they have seen a significant loss of motivation among employees, the survey by Edmonton-based testing and executive coaching company Psychometrics Canada Ltd. found.
The fallout has been readily apparent, with nearly 72 per cent of those in credit-stealing organizations reporting rumours have increased. As well, 71 per cent said employees resisted changes put forward by management, and nearly 66 per cent said feelings of insecurity have led increasing numbers of employees to start looking for other jobs.
As well, 70 per cent of the HR managers in companies where leaders hog credit saw a rise in employees calling in sick, and 68 per cent reported seeing more feuds among staff.
The study's recommendations are simple: "Leaders need to applaud those in the trenches for helping to create the comeback," Dr. Bakker says. "When they don't feel they are being appreciated for what they do, it will seriously impact morale."
In addition to giving copious credit, respondents to the poll consistently mentioned four actions that leaders could take to manage people more effectively, Dr. Bakker says: Be clear about their expectations; seek employee feedback; communicate more regularly; and act as coaches and mentors for individuals.
That message applies even to leaders who always make it a point to share credit for success with those they lead, career experts say.
"In such an uncertain time, employees need to be reminded regularly how much their work is valued and that they have a future with the company," says Laurie Hillis, president of leadership coaching company Megatrain Inc. To reinforce these messages, "they need to hear them in as many ways as possible."
So in addition to individual and small-group praise sessions, she advises having town hall meetings, where employees' efforts are acknowledged and staff are encouraged to ask questions and make suggestions.
"Right now, leaders should be serious about involving employees in decision-making," recommends Rick Lash, Toronto-based national practice director of leadership coaching company Hay Group.
"Leaders have to ensure that they are giving those they manage a sense that they are part of a mission that is larger than themselves and that they have a say in decisions that affect them. Not only will this make them go the extra mile because they are, in effect, setting their agendas, but they will have a clearer idea of how their individual efforts make a difference for the organization," Mr. Lash says.
Just as important as giving recognition to employees for their efforts, "highlight their successes to your own bosses," he suggests. "It will win you marks with management for your ability to motivate and build team performance under pressure."
Meanwhile, keep in mind what can happen when leaders don't share the credit: They could end up like the airline regional manager, Dr. Bakker says.
"He paid for his arrogance by being demoted to another part of the company where he had no direct reports."
Leaders need to let employees know as clearly and often as possible that they share the responsibility as well as
the credit for the organization's recovery, career pros say. Here are their key messages:
Set a vision
Communicate in group meetings and individual discussions that the organization has a plan for the future and that each employee has a role to play in success.
Talk about the reasons behind decisions and changes that are being made.
Ask employees to speak up with concerns and suggestions about anything that concerns them.
Getting input helps ensure staff feel they are part of the decision-making and responsible for solutions. The dialogue can lead to innovative ideas for improvements.
Get more personal
Have more informal interactions with small groups of staff and individuals, rather than big meetings.
Set individual goals
Discuss with each person face-to-face what is expected of them and how what they do will affect the success of the organization.
Talk about reward
Let employees know that their efforts will be appreciated and how their efforts can ensure job security.
CYCLE OF DISCONTENT
61% Human resource managers who feel leaders in their organizations steal too much credit for what gets accomplished.
83% Portion who saw significant loss of motivation among employees.
72% Those who saw rumours become rampant.
71% Those saw employees resist changes put forward by management.
66% Employees who said feelings of insecurity led to a search for other jobs.
89% Employees who said to be effective, leaders need to more clearly communicate.
81% Employees who said leaders should listen more and talk less.
77% Employees who said leaders should communicate more regularly.
24% Amount who said leaders in their organization are not effective when it comes to dealing with change.
70% Companies where leaders hog credit for results who have seen an increase in employee sick days and absences in the past year.
68% Those who reported more incidents of staff members or teams feuding.
Source: Psychometrics Canada Inc. Leadership Study, survey of 517 Canadian human resource managers