Adam Grant

Adam Grant, the youngest ever tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to talk about his radical approach to succeeding in business. Read an excerpt from the book.

Giving and Taking Credit

By Adam Grant

In 1952, the worst polio epidemic in U.S. history swept the nation, causing more than 3,000 deaths and 20,000 cases of paralysis. The medical researcher Jonas Salk came to the rescue. Salk’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh developed a vaccine, which was disseminated by the herculean efforts of the March of Dimes. By 1957, the incidence of polio was down by nearly 90 percent, and four years later, there were just 161 cases. The vaccine had similar benefits worldwide.

Jonas Salk became an international hero. But at a historic 1955 press conference announcing that the vaccine was safe and effective, Salk gave a valedictory speech that jeopardized his relationships and his reputation in the scientific community. He didn’t acknowledge the important contributions of John Enders, Frederick Robbins, and Thomas Weller, who had won a Nobel Prize a year earlier for groundbreaking work on growing the polio virus in test tubes, which enabled Salk’s team to produce the vaccine. Even more disconcertingly, Salk gave no credit to the six researchers in his lab who were major contributors to the development of the vaccine—Byron Bennett, Percival Bazeley, L. James Lewis, Julius Youngner, Elsie Ward, and Francis Yurochko.

Salk’s team left the press conference in tears. As historian David Oshinsky writes in Polio: An American Story, Salk never acknowledged “the people in his own lab. This group, seated proudly together in the packed auditorium, would feel painfully snubbed…. Salk’s coworkers from Pittsburgh… had come expecting to be honored by their boss. A tribute seemed essential, and long overdue.” One colleague told a reporter, “At the beginning, I saw him as a father figure. And at the end, an evil father figure.”

Over time, it became clear that Julius Youngner felt particularly slighted. “Everybody likes to get credit for what they’ve done,” Youngner told Oshinsky. “It was a big shock.” The snub fractured their relationship: Youngner left Salk’s lab in 1957 and went on to make a number of important contributions to virology and immunology. In 1993, they finally crossed paths at the University of Pittsburgh, and Youngner shared his feelings. “We were in the audience, your closest colleagues and devoted associates, who worked hard and faithfully for the same goal that you desired,” Youngner began. “Do you remember whom you mentioned and whom you left out? Do you realize how devastated we were at that moment and ever afterward when you persisted in making your coworkers invisible?” Youngner reflected that Salk “was clearly shaken by these memories and offered little response.”

Jonas Salk’s moment of taking sole credit haunted him for the rest of his career. He launched the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where hundreds of researchers continue to push the envelope of humanitarian science today. But Salk’s own productivity waned—later in his career, he tried unsuccessfully to develop an AIDS vaccine—and he was shunned by his colleagues. He never won a Nobel Prize, and he was never elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences “In the coming years, almost every prominent polio researcher would gain entrance,” Oshinsky writes. “The main exception, of course, was Jonas Salk…. As one observer put it, Salk had broken the ‘unwritten commandments’ of scientific research,” which included “Thou shalt give credit to others.” According to Youngner, “People really held it against him that he had grandstanded like that and really done the most un-collegial thing that you can imagine.”

Salk thought his colleagues were jealous. “If someone does something and gets credit for it, then there is this tendency to have this competitive response,” he acknowledged in rare comments about the incident. “I was not unscathed by Ann Arbor.” But Salk passed away in 1995 without ever acknowledging the contributions of his colleagues. Ten years later, in 2005, the University of Pittsburgh held an event to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the vaccine announcement. With Youngner in attendance, Salk’s son, AIDS researcher Peter Salk, finally set the record straight. “It was not the accomplishment of one man. It was the accomplishment of a dedicated and skilled team,” Peter Salk said. “This was a collaborative effort.”

Adam Grant; image credit: Michael Kamber

Why didn’t Salk ever credit the contributions of his colleagues to the development of the polio vaccine? It’s possible that he was jealously guarding his own accomplishments, but I believe there’s a more convincing answer: he didn’t feel they deserved credit. Why would that be?

To understand this puzzle, we need to take a trip to Canada, where psychologists have been asking married couples to put their relationships on the line. Think about your marriage, or your most recent romantic relationship. Of the total effort that goes into the relationship, from making dinner and planning dates to taking out the garbage and resolving conflicts, what percentage of the work do you handle?

Let’s say you claim responsibility for 55 percent of the total effort in the relationship. If you’re perfectly calibrated, your partner will claim responsibility for 45 percent, and your estimates will add up to 100 percent. In actuality, psychologists Michael Ross and Fiore Sicoly found that three out of every four couples add up to significantly more than 100 percent. Partners overestimate their own contributions. This is known as the responsibility bias: exaggerating our own contributions relative to others’ inputs.

The responsibility bias is partially driven by the desire to see and present ourselves positively. But there’s another factor at play that’s both more powerful and more flattering: information discrepancy. We have more access to information about our own contributions than the contributions of others. We see all of our own efforts, but we only witness a subset of our partners’ efforts. When we think about who deserves the credit, we have more knowledge of our own contributions. Indeed, when asked to list each spouse’s specific contributions to their marriage, on average, people were able to come up with eleven of their own contributions, but only eight of their partners’ contributions.

When Salk claimed sole credit for the polio vaccine, he had vivid memories of the blood, sweat, and tears that he invested in developing the vaccine, but comparatively little information about his colleagues’ contributions. He literally hadn’t experienced what Youngner and the rest of the team did—and he wasn’t present for the Nobel Prize–winning discovery that Enders, Robbins, and Weller made. It was all too easy to recall doing the lion’s share of the work, overlooking the value that others added.

“Even when people are well intentioned,” writes LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, “they tend to overvalue their own contributions and undervalue those of others.” This responsibility bias is a major source of failed collaborations. Professional relationships disintegrate when entrepreneurs, inventors, investors, and executives feel that their partners are not giving them the credit they deserve, or doing their fair share.

The key to balancing our responsibility judgments is to focus our attention on what others have contributed. Studies indicate that when employees think about how much help they receive from their bosses before thinking about how much they contribute to their bosses, their estimates of their bosses’ contributions double, from under 17 percent to over 33 percent. Bring together a work group of three to six people and ask each member to estimate the percentage of the total work that he or she does. Add up their estimates, and the average total is over 140 percent. Ask them to reflect on each member’s contributions prior to their own, and the average total drops to 123 percent. So next time you’re thinking about the value that you’ve added to a relationship or a group, try making a list of other people’s contributions before you count your own.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant. Copyright © 2013 by Adam Grant

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