Hey, That Was My Idea!

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If you have ever uttered that sentence, you probably said it with the voice in your head or, at best, sotto voce to your pal sitting next to you. When someone else presents your idea as their own—particularly if you’re in the room—the experience is a unique type of torture.

A typical scenario: you met as a team, and everyone contributed insights and solutions—some better than others—to a particular challenge. You presented your suggestion, and while it may or may not have been met with wild enthusiasm, you dared to put it out there. Then comes the day of the big presentation, and the team leader boldly presents your idea as their own without giving you one ounce of credit. Sure, the work product was a team effort, but what would it cost to give credit where credit is due?

You’re angry, seething—and you should be. Visibility in the corporate environment is critical to your getting recognized, promoted, or, depending on the project’s significance, feted with celebratory champagne. Instead, kudos go to the person who presented the idea and took credit for it.

There are remedies for the theft of intellectual capital, but there is also one caveat: don’t act like a victim. No one likes a whiner. Sulking and developing a litany of woes that you’ll share with anyone who will listen is not going to help your career.

What should you do?

The Harvard Business Review suggests, first, calm down. Evaluate your response: what is most important to you? That you look good or that the other person looks bad? You’re understandably angry, but consider the possibility that not giving you credit was an oversight in the heat of the moment.

Take ownership of the situation. Resolve to become protective of your ideas during your team meetings. Decide upfront on how to allocate credit. Who will present ideas to the leadership team? Who will field questions? Create a chart of who’s going to do what. “Write it down and keep it in an email,” says Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. “In the real world, it matters who gets the credit. That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments.”

After you have calmed down and have assessed the situation, approach the credit-stealer. If they acknowledge the issue, talk about how you can make things right. Perhaps they can email the group, thanking you for your contributions, or you can both speak to your manager to set the record straight. If they are not willing to do anything, determine to create opportunities to demonstrate the depth of your understanding of the solution. “Whenever the project or idea is talked about­—in person or via email­—chime in with details or answers,” says Dillon, to prove your knowledge.

When you’re working with a team, remember that you will generate ideas collectively, and not every idea will be credited to a team member. Model good corporate citizenship and be generous in sharing credit and creating a different team culture.

What if…?

On the other hand, if the aforementioned credit-stealer doesn’t recognize the problem, it’s time to become assertive. Writing in Fast Company, psychologist Art Markman points out that even if the person presenting the ideas is diligent about saying “we,” they are still the one doing the talking—and that’s what leadership will remember. Maybe it’s time to change your own behavior. Ask yourself:

  • Why aren’t you presenting your ideas?
  • Why are you not taking more initiative?
  • Why don’t you just start talking at the beginning of the meeting? You can say “we,” but you are in control of the situation.

Laura Vanderkam, also in Fast Company, cautions to stop the revenge fantasies. Being combative in a meeting will not help your cause. Don’t assume the worst, but for your own peace of mind, talk to the person who appeared to take credit for your idea. Rather than saying, “Why did you take credit for my idea?” in attack mode, start the conversation with a statement such as, “I felt when you were presenting our solutions you neglected to mention my contributions.” Hard to believe, but many people are not aware of how they sound. You might say something like: “I noticed that when you talked about the project in the meeting earlier this week, you said ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’ Can you tell me why you framed it that way?” You’ll be making it clear you noticed, and that it wasn’t right. Don’t throw your colleague under the bus during the meeting, but afterward, discuss what happened.

Other experts suggest not letting the moment pass during the meeting. How? Interject your opinion by adding clarifying remarks that show your grasp of the situation is deeper than it might appear in the moment. You can add some depth to the discussion that elicits questions, questions which you then answer.

What are some other suggested tactics you can use to get the credit you deserve?

  • If someone takes credit for your ideas in a meeting, you can say, “That’s exactly the strategy I suggested we try yesterday. Let’s revisit the plans.”
  • Don’t shy away from self-promotion. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it, but don’t equivocate either.
  • Continue to research after the team meetings. When the presentation to leadership happens, contribute additional insights showing you are invested in this idea. Come to the meeting prepared.

Longer-term remedies

Agree on a process at your team meetings. Set expectations by posing questions like:

  • How will we build support for our idea?
  • Who are the project owners?
  • Who oversees responsibility—and for which tasks?
  • When will we present these ideas to leadership?
  • Who will answer questions and be responsible for the follow-up?

Share your ideas, but document them in emails. Invite other team members to contribute. Be your own champion. It’s okay to hold something back and share it at the big meeting.

Remember, you are always in control of your feelings—you don’t have to act on them. But acknowledging your feelings will be an incentive to take intelligent, well-planned actions. Present yourself as powerful, valuable, and collaborative—and get the recognition you deserve.

21 Questions To Ask