How to Stop People from Stealing your Ideas
There is widespread fallacy that the business world is a cool and rational place.
According to the rational-business belief system, when people go to work they are driven by logic. Other than the occasional high-five, hardly an emotion emerges as businesspeople calculate, strategize and execute their way to greatness.
This is nonsense, of course. I know better, because I've worked in the business world forever. It's a hotbed of emotion, if we are honest about it.
Every emotion shows up in the business world -- admiration, love, hate, fear, greed and pity among many others.
They are all in evidence every day in every place of business. If you watch the energy field in a typical workplace you will see strong emotions an inch below the surface.
They are seldom expressed outright. It would be better for all of us if we told the truth about our emotions at work more often!
There is a particular emotion you feel when you're sitting at a meeting, thinking about something else -- picking up your dry cleaning or what to make for dinner, for instance -- and you hear your colleague begin to speak. As your co-worker continues, it slowly dawns on you that he or she is sharing an idea with the group, but it isn't his or her idea -- it's yours!
You just shared the idea with your workmate yesterday, and now he or she is sharing your idea and claiming it as a personal brainstorm. What a louse! You can hardly believe your ears. Do you speak up, and say "You stole my idea!"? Do you keep silent?
This exact scenario happened to our client Brynn a few weeks ago. Brynn was sitting at a meeting, half-day-dreaming, when her colleague Mike began to share an idea for radically altering their company's pricing scheme. Brynn had run down her idea with Mike just the day before the meeting.
"I couldn't sit there and let Mike mangle and distort my pricing idea," said Brynn. "I spoke up."
"What did you say?" we asked Brynn.
"It went like this," Brynn told us:
MIKE: So then, I was thinking, we could take our clients who are now on the annual plan and give them discounts based on the service level they choose.
BRYNN: Mike, let me interject here for a second. I ran down this exact idea in some detail with you yesterday. As I mentioned, I've been working on a revamp in our pricing schedule for several months. It doesn't bother me so much that you are passing off my idea, something I put tremendous effort into, as your own, but it does bother me that you're getting most of it wrong.
MIKE: Really, Brynn? How petty! We were brainstorming yesterday!
BRYNN: Mike, we can talk later if you like, but you and I were not brainstorming yesterday. I falsely assumed that when you asked me how my new pricing scheme was coming along and I told you, you would understand that it would make more sense for me to explain the new pricing plan to our team, rather than you, who had just heard it once in an overview fashion.
MIKE (sulkily): Go ahead, then! Don't let me stand in your way.
BRYNN: I'll give everybody a quick overview now, and then I'll present the full plan next week. To begin...
People will steal your ideas at work and pass them off as their own. Co-workers will do it, and so will managers. In many cases, your concern will not be "Who's going to get credit for this idea?" but rather "Will Mike, who only understands half the plan I'm proposing and none of the logic behind it, be able to faithfully convey my idea to others?"
No one likes to have a good idea twisted out of shape and contorted. It is completely appropriate for you to say something when someone is ripping off an idea you shared with them.
However, a smarter way to go is not to share your ideas with your colleagues until you know you can trust them.
We asked Brynn about her relationship with Mike before the idea-stealing episode. "I must be honest," said Brynn. "Mike is a smart guy. He is a classic frenemy -- half friend and half enemy. Sometimes he acts like my best pal. I've been out for dinner with him and his wife more than once. Sometimes he stabs me in the back.
"Now I know to be more careful. His fear level goes up and down dramatically. Mike will not be made privy to my ideas in development again -- that snake will not bite me a second time."
Most of us have bitten by a snake like Mike before. That doesn't mean we have to stop sharing ideas with our teammates altogether. Instead, we can pay closer attention to the trust and fear levels in our environment, and between us and each of our colleagues.
Most of us collaborate pretty well at work when there's a high trust level in our workplace. Brainstorming, after all, is a high-trust activity. We couldn't brainstorm well together unless we believed that our teammates supported us, whether our ideas seem brilliant or foolish to them.
Ideas are like flowers. They have to blossom. I have tons of ideas. I have three hundred story drafts here on LinkedIn, three hundred more on Forbes and hundreds of other ideas on notepads and devices throughout my house, office and car.
I have a complete Broadway musical in my head, with songs, costumes and sets ready to go. Half the roles are already cast. I have books for adults and books for kids in my head, in addition to the one-million-plus words I write each year. Not all my ideas are ready to see the light of day. Some of them need more time to germinate.
When the awful emotion hits you the way it hit Brynn in her meeting -- "Oh no! That's my idea I'm hearing coming out of my co-worker's mouth!" -- you can speak up or not as you choose. The important thing is to get the message the universe is sending you. Some of your plans and ideas are ready to share with anyone who wants to listen. If someone takes your idea and runs with it, you'll rejoice!
Some of them must stay private until the right moment arrives. They are not for sharing --- not yet. After some thought, Brynn said "In my gut I knew that Mike could not be trusted with perhaps the coolest business idea I've ever had. He didn't understand the idea. To him it was just a shiny object he could flash in front of everyone at our staff meeting.
"I guess I was trying to impress him, that day in my office when I shared my plan with him. That was my fear talking. I must have been at a low-mojo point to start flapping my gums when I should have known that Mike is the last person I could trust with a killer idea. Now I know better!"
The universe is a great teacher. We can get all the learning we need just by listening for it!