Watching someone else take credit for your idea is one of the most infuriating things that can happen in the workplace. You don’t want someone to get all the glory and the promotions for the project you spent too many sleepless nights working to create — or the bright flash of insight that really belongs to you.
When it happens to you, your first instinct may be to point fingers and burn bridges — or to stew quietly, wearing down your own will to live— but it’s important for you not to lose your cool. It’s equally important for the sake of your career — and your festering resentment — to stop it from happening again. Here’s how to accomplish both of these goals.
Don’t leap to anger
Anger is never your friend at work. Directing anger at another person wears you out, makes them feel bad, and gives you a bad reputation. Instead, try to spend a few moments trying to verify what actually happened — and then tackling the source of your anger.
First, assess how bad the credit-stealing is. Is this impacting your career? Are they really trying to make you look bad in front of your boss or could you possibly be projecting? Is it a pattern of, “Oh! I was just going to say [your great idea] too!” where the other person feels insecure about their own contribution and so tries to piggyback on yours?
Then deal with your anger before taking it out on someone else. Take a few breaths to calm down and think about the real source of the anger: why are you reacting so strongly? Do you always feel undervalued and underappreciated? Are you not being paid what you’re worth? Is credit important to you to make a case for a new promotion? Finding out what it means to you can help you tackle it reasonably. It can also reveal the stories you tell yourself; sometimes we connect events that have no external connection.
No matter what, don’t go in there with guns blazing. You’re not going to be able to argue the point professionally when you’re emotionally heated, and you could really hurt your chances of making your point.
Don’t accuse, ask questions
Instead of making the loaded claim of “you stole my idea!,” Harvard Business Review recommends framing your claim as a question, so your colleague has a chance to explain his or her actions.
This could mean directly asking the credit-stealer about what happened, in neutral language. “When you talked about our project, you kept saying ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’ Did you notice you presented it that way, and what do you think the impact was?”
That questioning helps you understand what happened, and it gives your coworker the benefit of the doubt. More often than not, your colleague may have just made a mistake and wasn’t behaving maliciously.
Another plus: directly addressing the situation also sets strong boundaries. It lets the credit-stealer know you know what they did and that they can’t walk all over you. As HBR’s Karen Dillon puts it, it shows the credit-stealer “that you noticed and that you didn’t think it was right.”
Don’t be a hall monitor
When it comes to something like credit, judging the right allocation of who did what can start to feel like a form of justice, and even the most balanced of us can start to act like the local sheriff. Just remember not to do that; not only is it aggressive and obnoxious, but when you get involved in projects that aren’t your own, you exponentially. If you see credit-stealing happening to someone other than you, feel free to tip off the person affected but don’t start addressing it yourself unless you’re the team manager.
Give credit where it’s due for others, so that they will do the same for you
If people keep taking credit from you — or you think they are — make sure you’re not guilty of doing the same thing, even unwittingly.
Amplifying each other’s voices is the method the women in the Obama administration used to stop men from taking credit for their ideas. According to The Washington Post, female staffers created an “amplification strategy.” Under this model, whenever a “woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”
They modeled what good credit sharing looked like and subtly shamed others for not doing it. By banding together, they were able to change the behavior of those around them. According to one former Obama aide, President Obama noticed the amplification strategy and called on women more often.
You ultimately defeat credit-stealers by making it clear who did what, so make sure your contributions are known to those around you and above you. And if credit-stealers persist, enlist your friends and colleagues to stand up on your behalf.
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