Your Co-Worker Just Stole Your Idea — Now What?
November 19, 2015

Your Co-Worker Just Stole Your Idea — Now What?

by Brian de Haaff

I was humbled by the great response to last week’s post, “How to Steal Your Co-Workers’ Ideas.” Close to 10,000 readers took time to read it and nearly 60 shared their thoughts.

In that article I tried to dispel the notion that ideas are sacred, especially when you work in a fast-moving atmosphere that encourages innovation. For example, the Wright brothers were able to fly only because they built on the ideas of those before them. One person acknowledged this truth:

As the adage goes “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Many of the great products wouldn’t have been possible without “stealing” them from their originators.

So true! But what happens when you dream up a brilliant idea, but you are not necessarily the right person to bring it home? Another person tackled this subject:

When you are working in a healthy collaborative environment, ideas will and should be tossed around openly. Someone may provide the missing link you have been searching for. It’s fine to use the link but give credit where it is due.

That’s right: Innovation depends on the free-flow of ideas, and that is why smart companies take care to recognize the original author of an idea. But what if they don’t? This next comment got me thinking about that and when people have grabbed my own ideas and run with them as their own.

…I once had a co-worker who was quite good at stealing ideas and then claiming that they were his. It didn’t take long for us to figure this out and stop contributing gems to his pile.

At Aha! we encourage everyone to share ideas freely, and it is part of our interrupt-driven approach to communication. But in some companies, people are boldly stealing other people’s ideas and shining a light on them to highlight their own brilliance. That can be difficult to accept, especially when you have worked hard to develop the idea — only to have it stolen from right under your nose.

After all, you care about your career, and you do not want someone else to get the credit for your effort. That feels all wrong. And a bit like you have been victimized.

It can be difficult to know which course of action to take. After all, you are an adult, and you know that “telling” on the other person will make you look petty and immature. But you want justice. Should you simply suffer in silence? Keep your ideas to yourself? Seek revenge?

Nope: Just let it go. Here are some paths you can take to move on:

Explain your thinking

If you spent a lot of time developing a brilliant idea, you should acknowledge it if asked. Without pointing the finger at the other person, simply explain the provenance of the idea: “I thought of a great feature to add to the next release based on the conversation that I had with customer X on October 20.” Once you share all the details and verifiable facts, the background and motivation for the thinking will make it obvious where it came from.

Expand the idea

If the idea was your baby to begin with, then you should want to see it succeed at any cost — even if someone else has taken over the idea and claimed it as their own. Any idea that has merit deserves everyone’s best effort. So add to the idea and make it better over time, and include others in the conversation as well. Because it is possible that you and someone else came to the same conclusion independently.

Swallow your pride

So you shared an idea that someone else claimed as their own. You know the truth of the matter, and so does the other person. (And chances are that others are aware too.) Keep your sour grapes to yourself and move on to doing what you do best. Obviously you are doing something right, if you had an idea that was valuable enough for a colleague to pocket. Others will take notice of your calm reaction.

Forgive the offender

If it is clear that the idea was stolen, give the person the benefit of doubt and move on. The longer you ruminate over what happened, the longer you will stay stuck where you are. Be glad you are a creative person who has more than enough ideas to share with the team. Then, forgive the other person and encourage them the next time they have a great idea of their own. This will build up their confidence so they will not resort to stealing in the future.

Mature adults must operate by a different set of rules, even when they feel cheated. They know that ideas are important, but responsible action is holy.

They do not seek revenge, or hope that karma eventually brings the other person down. They learn to let go of the wrong, painful as the process may be. And they do not let one bad experience stop them from dreaming up and contributing new ideas that are even better than before.

How do you react when someone steals your idea?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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