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Dear Josh: What Should I Do About A Partner Who Claims Credit For Our Work?

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, offers advice on forging great creative relationships. Today: the thorny issue of credit.

Dear Josh: What Should I Do About A Partner Who Claims Credit For Our Work?
[Eclipse: Igor Zh. via Shutterstock]

From August 4 to 8, Fast Company is hosting the Creative Counselor, who offers advice on how to forge and maintain great creative relationships. The Counselor, aka Joshua Wolf Shenk, is the author of the new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. He’s spent five years studying the most famous and productive creative partnerships, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Marie and Pierre Curie, comparing the common points of these stories with the latest in science and psychology. And now, he’s here to help you make the most of your creative collaboration.

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Here, the eternal question of who gets credit and the role of ego in a collaboration.

Dear Josh,
The other day I overheard my writing partner tell a colleague about some bits he wrote for a show we created together. (It’s a comic serial on a major network.) It really bummed me out that he was taking credit for something that we did together and it made me worry a little, because the only time he and I have trouble is when our egos get to be an issue–and here my ego is clearly a damned issue. Both our names are on the show, so why should I care what he says in conversation? How do I get over this so I can get back to work?
Yours,
Credit Crisis

Dear Crisis,
I don’t think your ego is the problem here. I think it’s your partner’s behavior. You two should come to an agreement about what does and doesn’t get disclosed to others.

And as you have that conversation, consider that many epic pairs keep mum on what happens between them. Dave Chappelle and Neal Brennan agreed never to say who wrote what bit for Chappelle’s Show. The performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay had a similar agreement–and have kept to it decade after their split, even amidst considerable acrimony.

The key word for a partnership is “we.” Literally, the more aligned two people are, the more they’ll use the first person plural. And this is just one manifestation of a much deeper convergence. The psychologist Art Aron (in a paper he lead-authored) talks about the “subversion by close relationships of the self-other distinction.” The writer C.S. Lewis described it more lyrically in his book Surprised by Joy: “He and you join like raindrops on a window.”

“We” is an easy word on the lips but can be hard as hell on the mind. And when partnerships break down, the real culprit is often the individual bucking for more recognition. John Lennon and Paul McCartney agreed from the start to co-credit everything they did, regardless of the particular contributions in any one case. But one major plot point in their unraveling was when the dubious manager Allen Klein fast-talked John by playing up all he knew about the John-element in their catalog. “He not only knew my work, and the lyrics that I had written but he also understood them,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in 1971. “That was it. If he knew what I was saying and followed my work, then that was pretty damn good, because it’s hard to see me, John Lennon, amongst that.”

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Klein became a wedge between John and Paul and did much more than Yoko Ono to drive them apart. But it all started with John’s preening ego, his wish to be seen as an individual “amongst that”–to be more than a Beatle, more than half of Lennon/McCartney. (But we have to ask, when he did get free–when he was solo–was he actually less?)

Have compassion for your partner–he’s doing what comes naturally, especially in a culture so obsessed with the individual. But tell him, “We need to talk.”

Warmly yours,

The Creative Counselor

Questions for the creative counselor? Leave in the comments below or email tiezzi@fastcompany.com.

Read more from the Creative Counselor on chemistry, idea vs execution, and consensus.

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