Have you just seen your boss taking credit for a presentation that cost you a couple of sleepless nights?
Ouch. That hurts.
Of course, there are many upsetting things bosses sometimes do. But according to a survey by human resources company BambooHR, taking credit for what someone else did is the worst offense, making us feel powerless and unappreciated.
So what can you do about it? Should you stand up for yourself and reclaim the authorship of your original ideas? But what if it backfires?
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Why does it happen so often?
The problem with boss stealing his employees' ideas usually appears early in people’s careers when they don't have the means to resist. Once an employee gains a certain status, they usually find ways to work around their boss and talk about it.
In addition, most companies don't actively address this type of behavior by not having clear guidelines and value statements that would highlight the importance of recognising employees' contributions and original ideas.
Bosses take credit for their employees' work and can actively try to undermine them for all kinds of reasons:
- They may feel threatened by those subordinates who are more creative or smarter than they are. This makes them believe they must protect their role at all costs. The very idea of praising their employees for great ideas and valuable work makes them uncomfortable.
- Some bosses believe they are entitled to own everything their team produces. Since many of them face many challenges — from poor earnings to upset customers and delayed projects — they’ll naturally want to present something positive as their own, even if they weren't the originators of the idea.
- Other bosses may also genuinely believe others will receive concepts better with their name attached to them. By taking ownership of an idea, they want to improve the chances that it will be taken seriously by decision-makers.
- The best-case scenario — it may as well be just an unintended mistake or a pure misunderstanding.
Regardless of the motivation, an intentional theft of credit is something that no one should tolerate. It fosters a culture of backstabbing, undermines employees’ trust in their colleagues as well as their own sense of self.
You may have come here to learn how to rebuild your relationship with your boss or make the company take corrective action before resentment forces you to quit. Here are the key strategies that might help you navigate some of the most hazardous terrain in office politics.
1. Step back to evaluate the situation
When you see your manager taking credit for your work, try to resist the urge to get carried away.
Having a desire to avenge or right this wrong is completely natural. But an inappropriate impulsive reaction or sudden emotional outburst can seriously harm your reputation — or even cost you the job.
Show that you're a professional and maintain your composure. Stay calm, bite your tongue. Take a step back. Try to get some perspective and evaluate the situation. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the boss stealing your ideas or just aggregating and presenting the work for the team that reports to him or her? Even if your boss doesn't give you credit at that particular moment, the might stil be eager to appreciate your ideas in a different setting, such as during a team building event or casual chat.
- Are you the only originator of the idea and is your manager aware of that? Ideas often go through many phases and iterations, which can make it impractical to give credit to a single person.
- Are you absolutely sure you haven't received any credit for your work? Just because you didn't receive an instant applause for your ideas, it does not mean your efforts went unnoticed. Without your knowing, your boss might be planning to give you a pay rise in the next billing period or promote you anytime soon.
2. Get a second opinion
But what if you're absolutely certain that your boss is stealing your ideas and purposefully taking credit for your work?
The next step is to get a second opinion on the matter. You want to confirm that your opinion is not purely subjective. Without a good witness and irrefutable evidence, it's just your word vs. your manager's.
Try to find a credible and reliable person that has some clout in the workplace. Looking at your situation from distance may help you understand different nuances at play and possibly also better understand your manager's behaviour.
3. Document your case
Making bold assertions which you’re unable to prove can be a very frustrating experience. If you want to support your claim with irrefutable evidence, you'll need a solid paper trail.
Collect all feasible evidence that documents the theft — everything from notes to emails and shared documents that prove the ideas were yours. The more specific you are, the better you'll be able to substantiate your claim.
4. Talk to your boss
Finally, it's time to take up the issue with your manager.
Don't just jump right at it. Try to frame your case in the context of a broader discussion about your career goals. Start and end the conversation on a positive note and talk about various projects you've been working on.
Make sure to lead the conversation in a calm, non-accusatory way. Leave out bitter emotions and don't let your resentment cloud your mind.
The best method for avoiding direct confrontation is to work your way around and get the timing right.
For example, suggest that you might benefit from more visibility. Model the behavior you’d like to see, giving credit to colleagues with valuable ideas.
Say you’d like to present some of your ideas as your own. Don't forget to prepare an example or two that will help you be more specific:
"I worked for several months on [a specific project] and not getting any credit for it during last week's presentation was quite discouraging. Maybe you had a particular reason for doing that, but I felt the need to discuss it with you."
Recognising your needs and taking your perspective on these situations, your manager may be willing to acknowledge the mistake and make some reasonable amends.
Don't worry, reaching a satisfying conclusion is possible. But there are a few conditions that all need to be met:
- Your boss must be reasonable enough to deal with
- You need to stay professional at all times and show respect for your manager
- Your approach must be free from hostility
- You should be open to reasonable and equitable compromise
When everything fails
If you witness any kind of unfair behavior, it’s always important to find a smart way to speak up. Remember that it's not a matter of increasing your confidence, it's simply the right thing to do.
But what if nothing happens? The answer is quite simple — quit.
Nobody feels comfortable working under the leadership of a boss who is stealing ideas from others. If you've come to the conclusion that it's intentional and malicious — and your boss doesn't seem to be willing to drop the habit anytime soon — there's really no better solution than to get out as fast as you can.
Leaving a job feeling resentful and disappointed is not uncommon. But if you get asked about the reason for leaving the job, don't forget to point out the importance of values like fairness and cooperation and emphasise the fact that the situation has reaffirmed your positive sense of ethics and personal integrity.
In this way, you'll be leaving your job holding your head up and feeling ready to take up new opportunities that will come your way.