You're sitting in a meeting, minding your own business, when one of your colleagues makes a suggestion. As you jot down notes, you realize that his proposal sounds vaguely familiar, but don't know why. Wait a second: He stole your idea!
Co-workers stealing ideas in the workplace is more common than you think. Why exactly this happens is unknown, but Charmaine McClarie, founder and president of McClarie Group, a leadership development and communications-consulting firm, thinks that fear and laziness play equal parts in the process.
"Colleagues take credit from others because they think they probably can get away with it," she says. "If one feels powerless to affect positive and necessary change, then stealing what one can't create oneself begins to look like a plausible solution."
How to deal with it
Why a colleague steals an idea is not as important as how you react when you realize it's happening. McClarie says you can prevent someone from stealing your idea by getting credit for it long before you do the work.
"Part of planning a project should be planning who needs to know about your ideas and how they should learn about it," she says. "When a group of people know and support your ideas, no one else can come in and take credit for them."
Other experts say that unless there is a really good reason not to, confronting the credit appropriator is the best route to take -- as long as you do it in a non-accusatory manner.
"Speaking about [stealing your idea] in the form of a complaint can make you seem like a whiner," McClarie says. "You may want to beat them with a stick; but wave your wand instead."
Perhaps the best option you have when an associate takes credit for your idea is to try to regain control and move the idea forward.
"If someone does steal your idea at a meeting, avoid trying to stake your claim on the idea then and there. It will leave a bad impression," McClarie advises. "Instead, send an e-mail afterward to those who attended. Present a few points that will move the idea forward. You're allowing others to know that you're a leader and strategic thinker who gets results."
A different view
While many believe that ideas belong to an owner, Richard Gallagher, author of "How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work," has a different perspective:
"There is a misguided belief that ideas, and credit, should be hoarded as a kind of career currency," Gallagher says. "In reality, ideas flourish when fertilized by the input of an entire team. People who worry too much about idea ownership are often putting self-interest ahead of the good of the entire workplace, an attitude that can hurt your career."
In other words, Gallagher thinks that ideas are not copyrighted and cannot be stolen, only spread. By encouraging people to spread your ideas, Gallagher says you gain more leadership credentials than by squabbling over credit.
Advice and tips
Here are five ways you can deal with or prevent idea appropriation (or idea sharing):
1. Create advocates for your idea
"Too often, when we think of a great idea, we turn to the person closest to us and share it. Instead, get strategic," McClarie says. "Ask yourself who in your organization is seen and valued as a leader and needs to know about [your ideas]. You're getting your idea out there before it can be stolen and you're also making it clear that it's your idea."
2. Reframe your views
"Change your perspective from one of having your idea stolen to one of having it communicated," Gallagher says. "Congratulate the other person for doing such a great job of communicating the idea and tell your boss what a great job this person did of helping bring your idea to life."
3. Ask others for support
"Ask others to speak to [your] idea at an anticipated meeting, particularly if you think there might be some pushback," McClarie says. That way, people will refer to the idea as yours. "'Well, (idea-stealer), that's an interesting point; Charmaine and I were speaking about this last week.' At that point, the idea has been unstolen."
4. Think beyond the idea
"Over a century ago, someone had the idea of turning a horse carriage into an automobile. Do you remember who that person was? The people we really remember are the ones who took ideas and built on them," Gallagher says.
5. Borrow, encourage and give credit
"When you openly encourage people to 'steal' your ideas and get in the habit of 'stealing' from others and crediting them, wonderful things happen to your career that you could never imagine when you try to be the lone ranger with a great idea," Gallagher says.
Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CBwriterRZ.