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Taking Credit: Mountain Climbers and Flag Planters

I am sure my experiences working on group projects are not unique to me. Regardless of the group size and project length, we all have some taste of the group dynamic. And while there are numerous blogs and articles about the different characters that seemingly emerge in every group, I’d like to focus on two types of people—both borrowed from mountain climbing lore.

I am the outdoorsy type and a trivia buff, so it is no surprise that I can recall the name Sir Edmund Hillary—the first recorded person to scale Mt. Everest—with little effort. But he wasn’t really, which brings me to my even nerdier factoid. Hillary’s sherpa—Tenzing Norgay—was right there with him, every step of the way. What Hillary brought in Western media exposure and modern climbing technology, Norgay brought and exceeded with his knowledge of the Himalayas and climbing tactics. Yet while many people can remember the name Sir Edmund Hillary, most draw a complete blank of his partner… or even that he had one.

Thus, I have observed in many projects, there are your Tenzing Norgays—slaving away in the background and doing the lion’s share of the work. And there are your Sir Edmund Hillarys: bringing vision to the project, lacking the same amount of work output as our friend Tenzing, and yet at the end of the day get to “plant the flag” on a successful project.

I am not decrying senior leadership who has a vision, puts together a work team, gets out of the team’s way in their work on the project, and celebrates the end result. These are great leaders and would certainly go out of their way to give the credit to their Tenzings. My observation comes from equals or peers on a project.

The Sir Edmund Hillarys out there I am calling out are the ones who rarely put in the work, never show up at group meetings, are disengaged with the project or process, YET swoop in at the end of the project to share in the limelight. (Worst of all, is if they drop in a the 11th hour and try to implement their change or exert control of the final project.) Not only do these Hillarys foster a sense of animosity between themselves and the rest of the team, but they fail to gain the experience one gets from working in a positive, progressive work dynamic.

So I suppose I should have a take-away message or two…

  • If you are a project “swooper,” either take yourself off the team or get more involved. If you don’t sense a team swooper, then it may be you.
  • If the team takes the ball 99 yards and you take it across the goal line, at least have the decency to thank your offensive line. Or, a better sports analogy, if your teammate hits a triple and you come on to pinch run, remember that you didn’t have to run through 1st and 2nd base, let alone hit the ball, to get there.
  • If you have done 1% of the work, beware the wrath of the real team members if you get more than 1% of the credit.
  • And a message to the Tenzing Norgays out there… don’t put up with Sir Edmund Hillarys! Do not allow their swooping to turn the Norgays on the team against each other. In a figurative sense, bury these Hillarys in an avalanche and keep climbing.

At the end of the project, everyone with a true claim to the end result knows that he or she relied on all the other “mountain climbers” along the way. The “flag planters” are too busy looking for the credit to recognize how insignificant they actually are.

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