How to react when your ideas are stolen

A contractor whose project manager is passing off the hired hand's ideas as his own doesn't have much recourse. But he's still in control of how he deals with such a problem. Here's what our project management columnist suggests.

Columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I am a contractor on a project with an inexperienced project manager. I spend a lot of time helping the rest of the team with the basics of good development processes instead of focusing on my own project work. Even more disappointing: The project manager comes to ask me for my ideas and suggestions in private and then presents them as his to the rest of the team. How should I handle this situation? How can I get the credit for my own suggestions and ideas?


Obviously, you’re in a difficult situation. Many times, the hardest problems on projects are people-related and not work-related. I can tell it is difficult for you to see your ideas being taken by the project manager to make him look good. If you were an employee, there might be more that you could do in this situation. However, your status as a consultant gives you less leverage.

Direct communication is always the first, best option
The first question I have is whether you would be comfortable talking to the project manager directly. If you are, that is always the place to start. The conversation should be non-confrontational. You don't tell him that he’s a bad guy. You say that you have a concern, and you wonder if he could give you his perspective.

Say that you have a "perception" that you’re providing ideas and that the project manager is implying that they are his own. Get his input and take the discussion forward from there.

Right now, you probably see the worst in the situation, and assume that the project manager is intentionally stealing your ideas. But you don’t know his perspective. He may not realize what he is doing. He also may tell you that he has similar ideas, and that your feedback helps him to confirm that they are valid. Another possibility is that he is gathering input from many people before making final decisions.

The project manager may also feel the team will react better if they think the direction is coming from him. If it appears that all of the direction is coming from a contractor, the team may not respond as positively as they should.

None of these responses mean that the project manager shouldn’t give the common courtesy of thanking people for their ideas or acknowledging that certain suggestions came from specific people. However, there might be some shades of gray in his behavior that is worth exploring first.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking with the project manager directly, there are no good secondary options. However, you should take the time to look at how you’re responding.

You can control how you react
There are two components to conflict situations: your perception of the event itself and how you react. I’ve discussed talking to the project manager; now let’s look at your reaction.

One question to ask is whether you should be upset (or how upset). One of your roles as a contractor is to offer advice. I once had a consultant from Ernst & Young tell me that he thought his primary job was to help me be successful. Of course, I never misrepresented his ideas as mine, but I combined his ideas with mine, as well as others, to manage the project. I don't know if I always gave credit to him for his contribution. A project manager takes input from many people, and it's hard to always know what percentage of each idea comes from whom.

I know that contractors have feelings, but depending on your contract arrangements, you could just consider this part of working on a project with a difficult manager. Some contractors feel that as long as they are getting paid and contributing to the success of the client, they are happy.

Should you stop giving advice?
If this type of behavior continues to be a concern, you’ll ultimately need to decide if you want to continue to offer the advice at all. Deciding not to do so would be a natural reaction, but probably not a professional one. Think about it in terms of managing your reaction.

Do you want to jeopardize the project’s success by withholding your ideas? Is it better to make the project manager look bad than it is for you not to get proper recognition? The problem with these solutions is that they compromise your values and ethics. If you maintain strong ethics, you will come out ahead in the long term, even if your perception is that others are gaining an advantage in the short term.

Should you start to play team politics?
If you start talking to the project team about the fact that the idea was yours, you must tread very carefully. This is getting into team politics and can be very divisive. It could also mean the early end of your contract if you aren’t careful. I don’t think there is any rationale for getting into the game of making yourself look good at the expense of someone else. Other people do it, but that is not an excuse for you to do the same.

Act with your long-term interests in mind
None of this logic is meant to rationalize how the project manager is acting. It doesn’t take too much effort to acknowledge the input or the good ideas people contribute. If the project manager feels the team should think that the ideas are coming from him, he should tell you so. Then you will at least know what the motivation is.

The best course of action is the direct conversation. If you try, but the conversation does not come to a satisfactory conclusion, you only have less-than-perfect options remaining. There are also some negative options that you want to stay away from.

Remember the saying: “There is good news and bad news about consulting. The bad news is that the good assignments don’t last forever. The good news is that neither do the bad ones.”

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently, he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. He’s worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called SupportStep.


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