“On great teams—the kind where people trust each other, engage in open conflict, and then commit to decisions—team members have the courage and confidence to confront one another when they see something that isn’t serving the team.”
Sofia was floored when during a team meeting, her coworker stood up to present a project they’d been working on together. They hadn’t planned to share their results until next week. Using materials she’d helped to create, he described it as his project and announced his results. What should I do? Sofia thought frantically.
If one of your coworkers keeps reframing your ideas as his own at meetings, or if your colleague went so far as to present your strategy to your boss, you need to take action. Avoiding conflict in such scenarios would harm the whole team. Tread carefully, though, or you could end up accused of stealing credit from others.
If someone rephrases your ideas as his own…
If a coworker is continually restating points you have made at a meeting and framing them as his own, he might be doing it unconsciously. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, but it helps inform how you should respond.
- Before saying anything, calm down. Losing your temper could make you look irrational—fair or not. Plus, you won’t get your thoughts across clearly if you’re angry.
- Address the transgression tactfully but directly in the moment, if possible. For example, if a coworker restates your idea, say, “Yes, that’s exactly the point I was making. I’m glad you agree with the idea.”
- If it keeps happening, approach the person one-on-one and ask if you can talk with him. Remember, if someone is repeatedly claiming your ideas as their own, it’s probably a sign of insecurity—so be gentle, or you’ll put him on the defensive. Affirm that you fully believe it wasn’t intentional, and validate the person’s contributions so acknowledging his mistake won’t feel as hard. For instance, you might say: “I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but a couple of times during the meeting, I felt you were framing X idea as your own when I introduced it earlier on. I’m happy that this idea resonated with you, because I appreciate the expertise you bring and would love to get your insight on similar ideas in the future.”
- If the issue keeps occurring, mention it during a one-on-one meeting with your boss. Focus on your desire to strengthen working relationships, stick to the facts, and maintain a positive tone. “I think Coworker Y has many strengths, and I hope he’ll become secure enough in his own ideas that he doesn’t unconsciously lay claim to those of others,” you might say.
If someone presents your idea or success as her own…
Say you believe a coworker has stolen your idea outright, and presented it to your boss or team as her own. Or say your coworker took credit for your work on a big project. You don’t want to look like a pushover by letting it go, but you don’t want to obsess so much about the transgression that you look irrational or insecure.
- Again, calm yourself down before taking any action so you’re fully in control of your words.
- Try to find out if there’s any way it could have been unintentional. Maybe you were brainstorming together, and she inaccurately remembered the idea as being her own. Or maybe you worked on the project together, and she accidentally left out your contribution during a meeting out of nervousness. Talk with her one-on-one, and phrase your question in a non-accusatory way so you won’t be sabotaging a working relationship. Give her a chance to apologize, but if she doesn’t, push back, says Karen Dillon in HR Guide to Office Politics. Making it uncomfortable for her to continue the behavior will deter it from happening again.
- Get support from other team members, if others know for certain that the idea was yours. Ask them to acknowledge your contribution in the next meeting, or in a team email. If the coworker at fault sees you have support, she may back down.
- If the offense was truly egregious—for example, if a coworker took your name off a presentation you created and presented it as her own—meet with your boss to explain what happened, sharing evidence to support your case.
If someone repeatedly takes credit for your work…
- Keep a log showing details about what happened and when.
- Find out if colleagues have experienced the same behavior from this coworker. Gather your evidence of the transgressions.
- Talk to your boss about the situation, along with any other coworkers who have been affected. Stay collected and share evidence, if you have it. Rather than badmouthing the coworker at fault, focus on your desire to feel heard and to create a harmonious office dynamic.
- Help create a culture of sharing credit by always highlighting the contributions of others.
Preventing idea theft
Work to prevent theft of your ideas by documenting them well. If you share them, share them with more than one person so you don’t end up in a “he said/she said” scenario. Better yet, share them electronically, so there’s a record.
Remember, too, that one idea isn’t everything. You’ll have other great ideas, and you can be more conscientious about how to share them in the future. Don’t fixate so much on remedying this issue that it keeps you from shining in other ways, or makes you look petty. If you focus on the future, others will notice your stellar performance and give you plenty of credit for it!
Contact leadership coach Joel for more advice on promoting your work and building a strong reputation. Consider reading his book Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication for more advice on navigating interpersonal office dynamics.