Suddenly it comes to you; that great idea that solves a tough problem or helps the company move to the next level, or just make everyone’s job a little easier. Your thought is innovative, well-presented, and then, yikes!, ripped off.
Idea theft can put you in an awkward position. How do you take back ownership of your intellectual property without looking like a toddler grabbing back her favorite teddy bear from a kid on the playground? I like to start by treating the act much like I would if I suspected my friend’s husband was cheating on her. You could do the same. Go to the person you believe has hijacked your idea and start the conversation by saying you’re just checking on something. Then outline the events that have caused you to believe the person took credit for your idea. Be open to the possibility that you have misinterpreted what’s happened so ask a question like, “From your perspective, how was that idea generated?” followed by, “Do you remember us talking about it in my office?” If he tells a different story, say something like, “Maybe we’re remembering it differently” and then share your recollection. The purpose of asking the questions and sharing your perspective is to create the space for the person to talk openly about what happened without getting defensive.
After you’ve completed the fact-finding phase, clearly state your expectations moving forward. For example, state, “In the future I’d like any ideas we discuss together to be presented together. As far as this instance goes, I’d like you to let (whomever) know that this was my idea. You can do that on your own, we can do it together, or I can do it on my own. Which would you prefer?” If you end up doing it on your own, avoid sounding like a tattletale. Go to your boss and say you’d like his advice on how to handle something. Briefly go over the events and say that how the idea was presented was surprising to you. Ask, “How should I deal with this so that I’m setting good boundaries but not upsetting the group dynamics?”
And, speaking of bosses, what if the idea thief is your boss? Admittedly, that’s a little trickier than dealing with a coworker, so start by deciding if it’s worth it to you to say something at all. Is this the first time he’s taken credit for your plan? Is it a somewhat small idea? Could it have been an oversight on his part? If the answer is yes, make a mental note and see if it happens again. Then, wait a bit to see how thing unfold. Your boss may still have plans that include you so see if she’s going to ask you to take the lead, share your idea with the group, or take an active role in determining next steps. Again, make a mental note and watch the path the idea takes.
If your boss misses opportunities to give you credit or fails to acknowledge your contribution in other ways, do a few things differently moving forward. Share any ideas you have with an audience and ask how the idea will be shared with others. Saying something like, “Would you like me to present the idea or provide a few slides for when you share my idea with everyone?” sends the message that you’re making note of the fact that this is your idea and you have an expectation that she will include you in the opening credits. You can even try something a little more lighthearted to make your point by saying, “I’m making a note of this so that if the idea gets used, I can add it to the plus side of my review!”
If you’ve decided that you’re okay addressing the issue with your worth boss, a private conversation is the only way to go. Start by letting him know that you’re excited the idea was used, that you had hoped your name would have been mentioned, and that you were disappointed when that didn’t happen. Then shut up! Give him space to respond and keep the door open to talk about how the two of you will handle similar situations in the future.
Let your boss know about what motivates you (recognition, job security, job growth, responsibility). Let him know that you believe your job is to make him look good while building your own career. Ask if, in the future, there could be a way for him to present ideas that reflect well on both your reputations.
Finally, keep in mind that ideas in the workplace don’t necessary belong to us. There’s a balance between doing what’s right for the company and doing what’s right for you as an individual. And, because of that you should never gossip about the situation to others, keep good ideas only to yourself, or become really angry at others you think are treading on your territory. Trying to hurt the organization almost always ends up hurting you and your reputation—and that’s not an original idea on my part at all!