Readers Are Spellbound & Perplexed…
Dear GWBW — How do I deal with a work peer who steals a lot of my ideas? He takes credit for my work and I find out after the fact. This has happened twice now. — Peered Off
Dear Peered Off,
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I know firsthand it’s often just flippin’ annoying. Keep your “flattery” to yourself and come up with your own damn ideas! I Get you, Peered. But all ideas aren’t created equally: for those truly original, game-changers you want to protect yourself, but for creative everyday concepts, boundary etiquette might suffice. Furhermore, don’t automatically jump to conclusions but prove you’ve been robbed before taking a more drastic move with management or beyond.
Beware your approach but approach your alleged pickpocket. First, have a plan, a goal. It’s most important here to bring his behavior to light and let him know in no uncertain terms you’re not ok with it. However, getting/taking credit yourself isn’t automatically the ultimate goal in every instance. If the larger group goal is met and served far more than any individual being given credit for a line item idea, then handle your emotions and step off. Weigh this for balance. While some anti-“snitching” cultures do controversially exist, I’m not aware of any culture where it’s ok to steal. In the workplace where a potential consequence is your being held back in some form, theft of your ideas is a double no-no.
Ideas are a dime a dozen — take comfort in knowing it takes real genius (which is not all about the brain power) to know how to bring them to fruition. Some hot ideas are already germinating in the ether and it could be a coincidence rather than a theft of yours (sure!, even twice possibly). People are often subconsciously influenced by thoughts or words they hear, and sometimes unknowingly repeat them as their own (even brainiacs in their fields — see: the Beatles!). Neutrally ask him how he came up with the idea. When? If you need to, take him back and refer to your notes (start keeping them if you don’t already; I date mine without fail) on the idea or when you brought them up in another meeting. Pulling out your documentation during a meeting becomes an option, but one you want to make sure doesn’t make you look like the petty ass. Oftentimes, collaboration is the path to creative solutions. Honor your own boundaries by letting people know consistently (through well-placed word but regular action) to be respected, but pick your battles wisely, and if it makes sense to, bring in the troops.
Dear Peered Off,
Plagiarism is a serious charge. But, God knows, it happens—in term papers and the office. Unfortunately you can’t go around copyrighting every thought and even if you could, it may not serve you. Neither will vengeance.
If your co-worker is your boss, well, you have no recourse for the whole taking credit for your brain trust. Think of it as being noticed by the higher ups. It reeks of job security. Recognize how the political system works. Do not compromise your job or your boss’ ego by dropping in a well placed, “That’s what I thought when I came up with it.” It isn’t actually well placed and could relive you of that job security thing. Suck it up. Breathe and wait to share your ideas in a crowded meeting room.
If your coworker is in fact, just a peer, well, then…Again, do not try to upstage with a well placed, “that’s what I thought…” Bide your time, hold your tongue and keep your great ideas to yourself. Share separately and quietly with those involved in hiring and firing and running the department. Perhaps ideas in a well placed memo? Then, when your buddy decides to plagiarize your thoughts and ideas, the one’s who need to know will already know—without you saying a word.
I will say, document your thoughts. Do not share off the cuff great ideas with this coworker, as clearly this guy is looking for great ideas to take credit for. But, at the same time, this is a balancing act, because sharing ideas for the overall goal of success for the team is necessary for success for the team. Share in collaborative meetings. If these meetings include your coworker who then presents to your boss as “I,” well, then I might drop in a humble but accurate “we” to help your coworker realize that plagiarism and credit stealing is easily done and very much NOT appreciated.
Sadly, your coworker may not even realize the “I” has taken the place of the “we.” But as I said, if it seems fully calculated, set your coworker up for the fall of his (or her) own making. Put the people who should know you are the brain trust in the know.
But, a side note. Be sure that collaborative work is not getting filed under your “I” either. As I said, plagiarism is a serious charge, in or out of the boss’ office.
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