When Your Boss Steals Your Ideas(s) At Work And What You Can Do About It (#GotBitcoin?)
Nothing frustrates employees more than a manager taking undue credit—here’s how to navigate one of the trickiest elements of office politics.
You share an idea with your boss, only to see him present it in a meeting as his own. Or you slave through the night on a presentation, and your manager takes credit for the whole thing.
Nothing undermines employees’ trust more than having a boss take credit for their work, according to research by the Culture Works, a Pleasant Grove, Utah, consulting firm. It fosters a culture of backstabbing, leading employees to conclude, “Why work hard for this boss if he’s just going to steal my ideas?” says Adrian Gostick, the firm’s co-founder and co-author of “The Best Team Wins.”
There’s more potential for this kind of trouble now that four out of five employees work on multiple teams. Many also have more than one boss, making it easier to lose track of who owns ideas.
It’s best to pause before crying foul, however. This is some of the most hazardous terrain in office politics.
“If you complain, it’s not going to work out in your favor 95% of the time,” says Ford R. Myers, president of Career Potential in Haverford, Pa. “It’s very rare that the boss says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I made a big mistake and I’ll go apologize to everyone and explain.’ ”
The problem crops up most often early in people’s careers, when they lack leverage to resist.
Bruce Hurwitz once suggested a new money-raising technique to his boss at a nonprofit where he worked years ago, only to see it rejected. He was later surprised to see his boss present the idea as his own in a meeting with board members. He didn’t want to openly undermine his manager. “I used my best poker face and did not react,” says Dr. Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing in Hackensack, N.J.
Attempted workarounds by junior employees typically fail. Wynn Newingham tried to go around a senior manager on a previous job who routinely took credit for her marketing ideas. But withholding her ideas or trying to work with other colleagues made it harder to do her job. “Every time she would get applause for my idea, I’d die a little bit inside,” says Ms. Newingham, of Ormond Beach, Fla. She eventually resigned and moved on to a better job.
Sometimes it’s best for a manager to take ownership of an idea, to improve the chances that the idea will be taken seriously by decision makers, says Marc Prosser, co-founder of FitSmallBusiness, a New York-based digital business publication. “Ideas often go through many phases and iterations,” he says. That can make it impractical to give any one person credit.
Don’t react impulsively, says Robert Hellmann, president of a New York career-consulting firm. “Take a step back and ask yourself, is this serving me in any way?” he says. Think about how your manager’s intentions, and your response, will affect your career goals five years down the road. One client Mr. Hellmann coached at a financial-services firm didn’t like her boss’s taking credit for her work, but he gave her other opportunities. “She recognized that he was in her corner,” he says. Soon she was promoted.
It’s important to find a savvy way to speak up if you see a pattern of unfair behavior. Some people who run meetings reflexively pass over ideas suggested by a woman, only to give credit later to a man who suggests the same idea, says psychologist Shelley Reciniello of New York. Consider asking colleagues who notice this to speak up.
Rather than sharing your ideas in meetings or private conversations with the boss, consider creating an email trail and finding a logical reason to copy colleagues, such as asking them for information, says Dr. Reciniello, author of “The Conscious Leader.”
If you take up the issue with your boss, do so in a calm, non-accusatory way, in the context of a broader discussion about your career goals, Mr. Hellmann says. Suggest that you might benefit from more visibility, and say you’d like a chance to present some of your ideas as your own. Be prepared to give examples.
Managers who actively try to undermine employees may feel threatened by subordinates who are more creative or clever than they are. Or they may have learned as children to compete intensely with siblings, and brought the same pattern to work.
These shady moves are usually more transparent than the manager realizes. When a former boss asked Paul Harris to prepare plans for a new division at a former employer years ago, he created a detailed package and a slide deck. His manager presented the entire plan to her bosses as if it were her own, says Mr. Harris, president of Global Recruiters of Blackhawk, a San Ramon, Calif., executive-search firm.
“I was dying to go over my boss’s head and say, ‘Hey, you know that was me, right?’ ” Mr. Harris says. “But I knew that would be career suicide.” So he kept his head down, telling himself it was his job to make his boss look good. Senior executives soon saw through his boss’s ruse, and began coming to him with questions while rolling out the plan.
Employees with some status and leverage can occasionally work around such a boss. Get to know managers one level up and chat casually about your work at internal meetings or on coffee breaks.
In time, the old playground rule may apply: What goes around, comes around. Mr. Myers recalls a graphic designer he coached who was upset when his boss, the design director at an ad agency, stole all the credit for a successful ad campaign he created.
The boss told him, “You work for me, and anything you do—I own it. And if you don’t like it, there’s the door.” The designer reluctantly stayed because he was applying for a mortgage and needed the paycheck.
When that boss abruptly left the agency a few months later, the designer was promoted to replace him.
If Your Boss Steals Your Ideas:
• Avoid Reacting In Anger.
• Talk With Trusted Friends Or Mentors About What, If Anything, You Should Do.
• Consider Conveying Your Ideas By Email, To Create A Paper Trail.
• Ask Yourself If Your Manager Is Giving You Recognition In Other Ways.
• Weigh The Impact On Your Ability To Meet Long-Term Career Goals.
• If You Raise The Issue, Do So In The Context Of A Larger Career Discussion.
• Ask Neutral, Non-Confrontational Questions When Discussing It With The Boss.
• Model The Behavior You’d Like To See, Giving Credit To Colleagues With Good Ideas.
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