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What to do when a colleague or boss steals your brilliant idea

By forbes.com
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Whether accidental or intentional, your initial reaction to someone taking credit for your brilliant idea will be shock and dismay, followed immediately by righteous indignation. How dare they!

 

First, take a few moments to calm down and assess the situation. You may need to excuse yourself to take a quick lap around the block, lock yourself in your office and call someone to vent, or meditate in a nearby restroom stall.

Now ask yourself, was this a game changing concept? Have they stolen an innovative idea that would have guaranteed your future promotion? Will it save your department hundreds of thousands of dollars or revolutionize the way your company does things going forward? Your next steps should be based on the following five criteria: the greatness of the idea, amount of credit taken, time and effort exerted in research and development, motive of the offender, and their position in your organization.

Some experts that will tell you (regardless of the merit of your idea) to let it go. They’ll say, ‘You are a creative genius, capable of generating other brilliant ideas. Imitation is a form of flattery, after all.’ I don’t agree with that methodology at all. There’s a reason our court system allows lawsuits for theft of intellectual property, because it’s an egregious breach of copyright, and in this instance, trust.

 

Once you’ve calmed down, approach the person to discuss the matter. Confrontation is often portrayed as a dirty word, but it doesn’t have to be. If your objective is to determine the person’s motive and propose actions to repair your relationship, confrontation can be immensely beneficial.

Make no assumptions prior to speaking with them. Remember, your goal is to maintain the relationship. Your tone should not be accusatory and you should meet with them privately. This conversation will enable you to gain insight into their thought processes, establish yourself as someone who will not allow themselves to be taken advantage of, and resolve the matter as swiftly as possible. I suggest you incorporate the following phrases into your dialogue:

“I noticed my name was not included in the email, or on our proposal. I was wondering why, since we both know I was a key contributor…”

“During the presentation you repeatedly said ‘I’, but never ‘we.’ I thought we were partners. I know I did my fair share of work. Why didn’t you mention the presentation was the result of our joint effort?”

Notice the tone is relatively neutral and you’re allowing them an opportunity to explain themselves. Wait patiently for a response. Do not feel a need to fill the silence. Most likely you will have caught them off guard either because it was not their intention to hog all the glory for themselves or they never thought you’d have the chutzpa to call them out on their bad behavior. He or she will either stutter in disbelief and offer profuse apologies or become defensive, dismissive, or even argumentative. Their reaction will reveal their motive.

Perhaps it was a simple oversight on their part. They may even suggest a way to remedy the matter. If not, you should suggest they send an email to your boss, cc’ing you and other members of your team, acknowledging your contributions to the project. If they agree and follow through, rest assured no malicious intent was involved, and they will be more mindful going forward.

On the other hand, should they balk at your suggestion, you will have to insist upon escalating the incident to your boss to resolve the matter. Hopefully, that will shame them into doing what’s right and you can monitor your interactions with them going forward. You should still meet with your boss shortly after your conversation with your colleague to keep them abreast of the situation and how you resolved it. You should also present proof of concept to support your claim.

 

If this is not the first time your colleague has taken credit for your idea or work, then approaching them is merely a formality. The same principles apply, but you already know this person is not trustworthy. However, showing them the courtesy of broaching the matter in person and in private, demonstrates professionalism, respect, and maturity. It will also reflect well upon you when you alert your boss to the situation.

When addressing your boss your tone should be neutral and professional. You are industrious and want to ensure you receive credit for the value you add to the department. You are not a tattle-tale, but you are concerned with the homogeneity of the team. This divisive behavior has the potential to corrode the team’s morale. If he or she has done it to you, it’s only a matter of time before they do it someone else, if they haven’t already. You are alerting your boss to a potential threat to the team.

When the culprit is your boss the dynamic is dramatically different. When approaching him or her to discuss the issue privately more attention must be given to your choice of words and tone of voice. Maybe it was a mistake, or worse, a manifestation of their insecurity. It’s quite possible they were merely speaking proudly of the team’s accomplishments because your actions are perceived as a reflection of their leadership. Your boss may feel a need to take credit for the department’s accomplishments to validate their self-worth. The simple truth is you’ll never know their motive unless you talk to them, and the sooner the better. Don’t let resentment fester and grow. It will seep out in unexpected ways in your future interactions and you may be viewed as insubordinate. Your boss might be completely oblivious of their demoralizing comments and your forthrightness may be just the wakeup call they need. Remain professional and positive, regardless the reaction to your candor.

In the meantime, be proactive. Early in my professional career I was advised to ‘document everything.’ When you have a great idea, put it in writing. Email your colleagues about it and cc’ your boss, or bcc your boss’s boss depending on your circumstances. Talk about it enthusiastically with others, then everyone will know the idea originated with you. Toot your horn but don’t blow it, don’t confuse eagerness with bragging. Have your trustworthy colleagues casually mention your name whenever the topic arises in conversation. If anyone asks about the status of the project demonstrate your ownership by readily proffering specific details, thorough explanations, and anticipated benefits. Model good behavior. Generously praise your colleague and your boss’ good work in front of others. Your positive example can establish a precedent for others to follow.

If your boss habitually takes credit for your ideas, has a narcissistic need to steal the spotlight, and never accredits you for your work it’s time to explore employment opportunities elsewhere. Bad behavior from your boss with take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. You will never reach your full potential in an inhibiting, hostile environment.