Enterprise Software

Co-worker 'idea theft' is often not deliberate

If a co-worker has ever taken credit for one of your ideas, you know how frustrating it can be. But it may help to know that the idea theft might not be intentional.

If a co-worker has ever taken credit for one of your ideas, you know how frustrating it can be. But it may help to know that the idea theft might not be intentional.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In a recent blog, I wrote about employee sabotage in the workplace. The resulting discussion and ensuing e-mails describing specific instances of co-worker sabotage depressed me to no end. Apparently, the world is just a bad made-for-TV movie.

One of the most common acts of sabotage among workers seems to be stealing credit for ideas. I've had this happen to me on a number of occasions. For example: I'll mention an idea in a meeting with one person, and then a week or so later that person will state the idea as if he'd just thought of it. In my cases, however, these "idea thefts" are not intentional.

I belong to a LinkedIn discussion group called Office Politics, Workplace Politics, and Organizational Politics. In a discussion about idea theft in the workplace, one of the posters, Alan S. Koch, owner of ASK Process, Inc., and a computer software consultant, made a great point:

One must take care in accusing anyone of "credit theft." Ideas are funny things -- difficult to manage, and even hard to prove ownership of.

Although intentional theft of ideas is common, unintentional theft may be even more common. Consider: I have advocated a certain idea on multiple occasions when "Bob" was in the room. He may have been listening, or he may have been absorbed in his Blackberry. Either way, the idea was tucked into his memory.

Later, in another context, that memory was triggered by circumstance, and combined with new information, it suddenly made sense to him. He presents it as his idea because he doesn't consciously remember the seed that was planted way back when.

I don't see a way to "prove" credit theft, so an ego-less approach makes more sense than trying to confront a wrong that the perpetrator may not perceive.

He's right. You could resort to carrying around a recording device with you at all times, slap it down on the table when someone co-opts one of your ideas, and announce, "I have taped evidence that on November 8, 2008 I said those exact words in a meeting with you." Of course, that won't work -- especially if you ever want people to speak to you again.

In today's competitive work environment, it's hard to not get credit when you deserve it. But IT is, in most cases, a team-driven environment, so if everyone pitches in to make an idea work, it really doesn't matter where it originated.

In my next blog, I'll talk more specifically about the role of credit recognition in a team-driven environment.

Get Career Management tips in your inbox

TechRepublic's Career Management newsletter, delivered each Tuesday and Thursday, offers tips for how to find a job and how to cope once you're there. Automatically sign up today!

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

21 comments
jhughes2020
jhughes2020

"Idea theft" may also be a symptom of "selective memory."

Tink!
Tink!

It's used in cartoons constantly...the side character will mention something and the main boss will later state it as their own idea. It is a concept that is found repetitively in old and new cartoons.

dtrnelson
dtrnelson

People are always stealing my ideas. I keep throwing them out there in an empirical attempt to determine the time-constant for when they will be presented back to me by someone else. (The lab notebook is a good recommendation--if anyone at my organization cared...) Elsewhere on the web, I read someone's characterization of "office personalities," one of which was "the Idea Hamster," putatively someone whose only contribution is spewing ideas--feasible or not. Of more interest, I once heard an interview with Jack Welch, former head of GE, in which he was asked something about how people with an "idea" for GE should go about getting it to him. Welch shocked the interviewer--and me--by saying, "I tell people, 'I don't want to hear it.'" (!!!) Among, what seemed like, dozens of reasons, he listed: -- ideas we've GOT; it's IMPLEMENTATIONS we need; in fact, we've got MORE ideas than we can IMPLEMENT in one lifetime -- chances are one of the people I'm paying has already thought of it, and it's on our list -- if you tell me, and we do it even though we already thought of it ourselves, you're going to assume we cheated you, so just don't tell us -- if you think you're idea is so great, go TRY it and make us look bad (you'll soon learn how "valuable" the "idea" part of the equation is...) -- if your idea IS great, and you ARE successful because of your perserverance, you DESERVE to get rich and we DESERVE to miss out by not taking you up on it (but you will have our respect) Good ol' Jack.

teoiling
teoiling

There are often non-team players who are out to benefit themselves. I find it hard to believe its not deliberate - the above example might be seen as non deliberate. However, I've experienced alot of deliberate thefts.

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

I work nights so my ideas and hard work go towards making day staffers and management look good for their early morning meetings. For the most part; you get used to it especially at the beginning of shift when all their stuff is dumped on you and "HAS" to be completed by tomorrow because it's so very important( it really isn't and the person is lazy ). Whatever. I get it done; I stay employed. End of story. Every now and then a manager may leave a thank you in the inbox but it's very rare. I don't care anymore. It's not worth a damn if appreciation doesn't doesn't come in the form of a pay raise. Here's a toast to working in America. Yep yep.

billcooey
billcooey

If someone feels the need to worry about their ideas being stolen it is more likely the case that they have very few ideas worth hearing anyway and are just making excuses. People who consistantly have good ideas of their own will get the attention they deserve or move on to somewhere more conducive to "free thinking" and idea development. People will get the credit due eventually - good or bad.

mforman
mforman

I've never cared if someone put forth an idea that was originally mine. In most cases, the individual who actually had the idea to begin with had also thought it through a lot better than anyone else. If it were me, I would simply use this forethought and consideration and either take the idea and run with it, or help the other person be successful with it. Ownership of an idea only counts if it is executed well, and your involvement in its execution will be more important to management that who actually dreamed it up.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

So theft is theft, regardless of intent. Or has the law changed recently? You see I was MEANINNG to pay for that but just pure forgot!

ctech1
ctech1

I am a firm beliver that we should not look for reward, just enjoy what you are doing.

coffeedrinker
coffeedrinker

I'm sorry for both of us that it's come to this, but I agree with your comments: "Whatever. I get it done; I stay employed. End of story."

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

are those who hoard knowledge. When asked how to do something they respond with "Learn it the same way I did." Makes for a difficult team player.

fishcad
fishcad

The history of science and invention gives many instances of two or more persons coming up with an idea at nearly the same time with little or no contact between them. I was a high school teacher and coach. I once teased one of my defensive backs that he got burned so bad he was like a piece of toast. The next thing I know I was hearing "toast" on college and pro TV games. I really believed that I thought that up myself, but I had probably heard it, or something like it, previously and unconsciously tucked it away.

J-R-Doe
J-R-Doe

About 40 years ago (give or take a few), I worked with another young engineer who was quite skilled in mining his co-workers ideas and getting them passed to the next couple of layers of supervision. This guy - Davie - never had an original idea, even going to lunch. Davie was undone when his other co-workers figured out what was going on when Davie was credited with several of their ideas. The co-workers talked among themselves and cut Davie out of their thought loops. Cruel as it was, Davie withered on the vine like an unpicked tomato. Somehow Davie survived, but I was never quite sure it was accomplished....!!

KSoniat
KSoniat

The point of the article is that people are not aware that they did not initiate the idea (which is rather unconscious of them and I am not really a proponent of). You brought up "paying" for something. If you present someone elses' idea do you slip them a $20 bill? There is also a difference in shoplifting and incorporating someone's idea as your own. The lying is less tangible so I used it as an example. I've worked with unconscious people who I could see doing this. Most of the time they were too unconscious to even borrow someone else's idea nontheless create one on their own.

KSoniat
KSoniat

It's like telling me I lied if I tell you a meeting is at two and it ends up being at three. If I believe it was at 2 and it was actually scheduled for 2, but later changed to 3, did I lie? It wasn't the truth - but it was what I believed to be true at the time. Granted - I also believe some people know exactly what they are doing when they do this - but not all.

KSoniat
KSoniat

Conscious competents - people who know they know. Conscious incompetents - people who know they don't know. Unconscious competents - people who don't know they know. Unconscious incompetents - people who don't know they don't know. This last group is dangerous!!

Editor's Picks