What Young People Can Do When Colleagues Steal Their Ideas At Work
Your hands are shaking as you click “leave” to exit your team’s weekly check-in. You had been talking to a “friend” of yours at work about an idea you have that will save your team a lot of time and money, but you were still trying to figure out when to present it to your boss. Toward the end of today’s meeting, your manager asked if anyone had anything else to say, and before you knew it, your “friend” was talking about your idea!
You’re frozen in shock. You think you might have misheard her because she couldn’t have just passed off your idea as hers?! And when you look over at her little zoom box in the corner, she’s looking at you like she was chatting about the weather or her weekend, like she’s doing nothing wrong. You thought you had left all of that high school drama behind when you joined the workforce!
When a colleague steals one of your ideas, it can feel like the rug is being ripped out from underneath you. Not only has someone you considered a friend taken something that was yours, but they also don’t even seem bothered by this violation of trust.
You think about confronting your “ex-friend” or maybe even going right to your manager because she can’t get away with this! Or this whole thing feels really overwhelming right now, and you’ve got a lot of other things going on, so maybe the best decision is to just let it go.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as yelling and accusing or running and hiding. No matter what direction you go in, it’s important that you process your feelings, be smart about how you proceed, and create a game plan so this doesn’t happen again.
Here are the five steps you can take to ensure your ideas are never stolen again:
1. Get Mad (For A Little While)
What’s happened to you is really unfair, and you have the right to be mad. Our culture has a very strange relationship with feelings. We either beat ourselves up for having feelings, or we allow our feelings to blind us so we’re not able to move forward.
The best way to handle your emotions is by first identifying how you feel. Take a moment and recognize how you feel hurt, betrayed and confused right now and that you’re angry. You’re simply acknowledging all the feelings you’re experiencing. It doesn’t mean you have to do anything or say anything; you’re acknowledging and accepting how you feel.
While it may feel like you have to act right away, give yourself a little breathing room to process everything you’re feeling. There’s a reason why we’ve all heard the expression, “let me sleep on it.” Give yourself at least a day to process and calm down, and then you can think clearly.
2. Your New Mantra: It’s Not About Me
You might be fantasizing about your colleague getting fired for her outrageous act against you, but you have to remember her stealing your idea has very little to do with you. You may be thinking, “It was my idea; of course, it’s about me!” But it’s not. It’s about them.
This is probably not the first time they’ve done something like this, and unfortunately, it probably won’t be their last. You can spend hours trying to understand and analyze why your once friend would do this to you, but it’s not going to get you any closer to the right answer. It’s just going to keep you stuck in your anger.
As strange as this sounds, the best thing you can do is be compassionate and try to empathize. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see from their perspective why they did what they did.
Maybe she stole your idea because she is really worried she is about to get fired and felt like she has no choice. Maybe her parents lied all the time when she was growing up, and she thinks lying is the only way to get ahead at work. In the end, it doesn’t matter the reason. What’s important is for you to realize that people do things for reasons we don’t know or understand, and in the end, it’s about how we decide to be in the world.
This is your opportunity to show up in the world as someone who isn’t angry and resentful towards everyone but someone who can find humanity in those that have hurt them.
3. Assess The Situation And Get Curious
Just because you’re practicing empathy doesn’t mean you do nothing. You need to do something, but what you do is determined by your particular situation at work. Think through all of your options. Would going to HR be the best idea? If you talked to your colleague directly, how do you think she’d respond? If you go to your manager, how will they most likely respond?
Right now, it’s time for you to think about what’s best for you. Which option or approach makes the most sense for you? Think about your career and your place in the organization. Think about some of the people you work with who you really admire and assess how they would approach this situation. If you have a mentor or a close relationship with someone you know you can trust at work, you might want to talk through your options with them.
4. Focus On What You Can Control
While you have no control over your colleague’s actions, you have control over how you handle the situation as well as what you decide to do differently in the future. When you come up with ideas in the future, how will you share them?
One way is to pitch ideas to the entire group. That way, no “one” person can take the idea from you. Write things down. Each time you have an idea, create a paper trail, even if they are just your own notes. It’s always more compelling when you can say, “I came up with this idea on October 11 at 9:42 a.m. and talked about it in this meeting at 11 a.m.” People who steal are usually flying by the seat of their pants, so when you have a clear idea of what happened and when you’ll be able to make a more compelling case if you get to that point.
If you pitch an idea to someone, make sure you follow up in writing shortly after the conversation, or maybe you send the email before to let them know this is what you want to discuss.
Start tooting your own horn. This can be really tough to do at the beginning of your career because it seems like everyone else has so much more experience than you but when you do something well, make sure people know about it.
5. Stay Classy
This is the most important step: stay classy. Careers are long, and the world is small. You’re going to be working for a long, long time, and if you’re working in your ideal industry, you’re going to run into the same people over and over again.
Building trusting and lasting relationships are vital if you want to make an impact in your career. If you start bad-mouthing your colleague or your anger turns into resentment, which turns into apathy, it’s only going to hurt you and your career. While you’re in the “right” in this situation, that’s not what people will focus on; they’re going to focus on how you responded.
While you can no longer trust your once friend for stealing your ideas, trust that the majority of people are good and don’t want to take credit for other people’s ideas or work. Also, trust that people are savvier than you think, and most likely, your ex-friend/colleague’s true colors will show if they haven’t already.
When you show up as a role model in tough situations, you’ll stand out for who you are instead of the ideas you have. Remember what Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Think about how you want people to feel when you enter a room, and be intentional about showing up like this every single day. This is what people will remember about you.