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Dear Anna,

My colleague keeps stealing my ideas and claiming them as their own. How can I address this without the risk of not being collaborative?

The list of things that cause frustration to knowledge workers in teams is long and the frustration of idea stealing is very close to the top. When a shared idea becomes a stolen idea, it impacts everyone – the person who claims original ownership, the person who steals it by describing it to an influential (usually senior) person without acknowledgement and the new team member who may quickly learn that’s how things are done around here. As pressures inside organisations increase and competitive behaviours come out to play, try these ideas to find a combination that works for you. 

Channel your inner giant: Isaac Newton’s letter to his rival Robert Hooke in 1676 observed that he has seen further from standing on the shoulders of giants. Be sure that you don’t subtly encourage the behaviour by not acknowledging the shoulders you stand on. Mentioning what generated or started your thinking sets the pattern of acknowledgement and makes it more likely for the person to include you, if not those you stand with, when describing the idea to others. This simple pattern of acknowledgement is one of the ways to tell if a person, group or organisation are really genuine about collaboration.  

Don’t let it pass: A subtle mention in a conversation with people who received the stolen idea such as “I was talking with X about Y” might be enough for a switched-on team leader to recognise that the original idea of one team member is actually a stolen collaborative idea. A well-placed question to the thief about “the idea we were discussing” or “our conversation about” can send a warning shot that you know what they have been doing and aren’t going to let it pass. Don’t spend your time hoping the thief will change. Somewhere along the way they have been rewarded for an idea that wasn’t theirs, got away without acknowledging it, or just thought they could get away with it with you.  

Lift up those who do the right thing: Really go for collaboration with those who you trust with your ideas. Don’t be tempted to fully retreat and stop sharing your ideas, just be selective about who and how. There are separate types of collaboration identified by Janet Salmons in her book Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn: Parallel collaboration, where individual ideas are developed and then combined, or sequential collaboration where each person creates a link in the chain. An angle or approach that is unique to you can make it more difficult for others to copy. It’s the synergistic collaboration where you need to be selective. This type meshes together the thinking of everyone, and the result should be owned by everyone, too. 

Collaboration is powerful when it’s done the right way. Rather than another pep talk about being more collaborative, make a contribution to stamping out the behaviours that undermine it.