Thief! How to stop coworkers from stealing your best ideas Few things are more demoralizing than to not get credit for your original ideas. That’s why a culture of recognition is key to a healthier workplace environment, this equity advocate says.

 


Have you ever been in a meeting and shared an idea . . . and then later in the meeting someone else repeated it and got credit for it? Some people outright steal ideas, sure. What I’ve seen more often though is that people repeat what they heard because they liked it. But they miss the part where they cite their source. The intent is to amplify or “yes, and . . .” the idea, but the unfortunate impact is that whoever repeats the idea gets the credit. 

STAND UP FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR IDEAS 

I’ve had this happen to me plenty in business, especially when I was younger. If there is a pattern of this happening to you, document specific examples and the impact each had. Specifically, include the professional impact, such as the impression that was left with leaders in the room or a client. If this is happening with a peer, have a 1:1 conversation to address the behavior. Here’s some sample language: 

“There have been a few instances now when we’ve been in meetings together and you restated my ideas. I don’t believe this was your intent, but instead of echoing what I said, the ideas came across as your own. Specifically, [state examples and impact briefly and clearly]. In the future, I’d appreciate it if you would reference me as originating an idea and make it clear that you’re agreeing with or building on what I had to say. And I will always do the same for you so that we can support one another.” 

If this is happening with a higher-up, speak to your manager about the repeated behavior, give them specific examples, and ask how they recommend handling it. This way your manager can address the issue directly or provide the best advice about handling depending on who is involved and the power dynamics and personalities at play.

However, putting the onus on individual employees to address this behavior can breed resentment and lead to a combative culture that stifles idea-sharing. It’s healthier to proactively create a culture of “amplification.”

WORK TOGETHER TO STOP IDEA COMMANDEERING 

In 2016, inspired by this Washington Post article by Juliet Eilperin about amplifying other women (excerpt below), and finally, at a point in my career where I held more power and authority, I committed myself to always calling out the specific people who originated an idea. I also shared the article with the women on my team, and it was so encouraging and uplifting to see what happened when we all practiced amplification. 

“Karen Tumulty had heard from a former Obama administration official that things were so tough for women to exert influence during the president’s first term that they devised a strategy called ‘amplification’ to hammer across one another’s points during meetings. After one woman offered an idea, if it wasn’t acknowledged, another woman would repeat it and give her colleague credit for suggesting it. . . . But what I wasn’t prepared for was this: Once I shared this approach in a report in mid-September, women in Washington and in communities across the country decided to adopt it as their own.”

GIVING CREDIT IS GOOD FOR COLLABORATION

I’m a “we all win together” person who prioritizes collaboration, teamwork, and mutual success. Amplification and giving credit do not contradict this approach. Amplification supports collaboration. Here’s why:

  • You want team members to feel safe and empowered to share their ideas. Sharing ideas and not being recognized for them is demoralizing and can make people hesitate to speak up the next time. Why contribute if it feels like your ideas are co-opted?
  •  Not doing this can breed resentment among colleagues, particularly if there are repeat offenders. 
  • You should always cite your sources—in meetings and in all settings. It doesn’t undermine your authority. It enhances it because it demonstrates that you are both knowledgeable and confident. Highly confident people give and share credit.  

HOW YOU CAN ACTION THIS IN THE WORKPLACE

Proactively share this idea with your team. It has made a real difference in my life and the lives of the people I work with. You can share this article, including the link to Juliet Eilperin’s original article. 

Always cite and amplify the specific person or set of people that originated an idea. Here’s some language to help: 

  • “I really like what Tania said earlier, and I agree we should [restate the original idea]. 
  • “Adding to what Tania said earlier about X, I think . . .”
  • “Tania and I were just discussing this the other day and I really liked her idea of XYZ . . .”

If you’re in a position of authority and you see something, say something. If you’re in charge of the meeting or a team leader and you see this happening, speak up in the moment in a way that’s respectful to both parties. For example: “I appreciate the idea you raised earlier, Tania, and what you added to that, Colin. I agree that . . . [summarize/restate the main takeaway].” Or discuss it directly with both people after the meeting. For example: 

“Colin, I don’t believe this was your intent, but there was a moment during the meeting when you restated Tania’s idea and it came across as your own. In the future, I’d appreciate it if you would reference your colleagues’ original ideas and make it clear that you’re building on what they had to say. Here’s some language for that (reference the above or even send them this article). I expect all your colleagues to do the same for you as well so we can continue to foster a collaborative environment.” 

“Tania, I recognize that you originated that new business idea and I appreciate you bringing it to the team. I want you to know that I did speak directly with Colin after the meeting to provide some coaching around this. Moving forward, I asked him to reference your, and any colleagues’ original idea, as I expect everyone to do to continue to foster a collaborative environment.” Consistently and fairly recognizing people for their ideas and contributions is important to a supportive workplace that encourages ideas to flow and makes the people who are idea-generators want to stay. 

Hanah Smith is an author, speaker, executive adviser, and workplace consultant. She is also a former communications executive. Hanah writes and speaks on topics related to transforming the way we work and advancing equity in the workplace. 

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