Whose idea was it anyway?
Does your boss take too much credit for your work? If so, how? And what is the line between your boss harnessing the team’s work and engaging in outright idea theft and self-promotion?
How do you fight back to ensure your work receives due recognition in the company, beyond your boss, while maintaining relationships? It’s not easy.
I thought about this issue after experiencing intellectual property theft this week. A contact happily appropriated some of my ideas, with only modest attribution. The only thing worse than not getting recognition is a lazy person piggybacking off your hard work.
I’ve come across plenty of idea thieves over the years masquerading as executives, managers, entrepreneurs or small business owners. They range from clueless types who do not have a creative bone in their body, to sinister types who think nothing of stealing your best ideas, to career managers who think it is their right to use your best ideas to further their own career.
Here are five profiles of idea thieves to watch out for. If your boss has another profile, add it to this blog through the readers’ comments.
1. The ‘Your work is my work’ boss
Possibly the hardest idea thief to work for. These command-and-control managers believe it is your job to supply them with good ideas and help advance their career. You end up like a grease monkey in a pit crew, keeping the team performing at peak levels, while the boss stands on the podium soaking up the glory. At least Formula One drivers usually thank their team. In my experience, these narcissists are impossible to reason with and should be avoided at all costs.
2. The ‘We are a team when it suits me’ boss
You know this type. They foster teamwork to get the best ideas and results, openly praise people within the team, and pretend they praise team members throughout the organisation. But when your boss presents good teamwork to their boss, it’s all due to their efforts. If the work is criticised, there is suddenly no ‘I’ in team. These teamwork flip-floppers are probably the most prevalent idea thieves: they try to develop teamwork but cannot help themselves when it comes to self-promotion.
3. The ‘I had that idea, too’ boss
Don’t you hate these creeps? Each time you suggest a good idea, they miraculously thought the same thing. Or if the idea is accepted, “it still needs work”, according to the boss. The good news is that this form of idea theft is hard to maintain: your manager eventually looks silly if they continually claim to have had the same idea, when it is obviously untrue.
4. The ‘My job is to harness your best ideas’ boss
The most dangerous form of corporate idea thief. Usually new to organisations, they set up team meetings or lots of one-of-one discussions to milk everyone’s ideas. There’s nothing wrong with new managers trying to understand the organisation’s threats and opportunities, and encouraging team members to put forth ideas. It’s when the new manager, eager to impress, goes to their superiors with a jaw-dropping list of ideas and gives little or no recognition to staff who created them. My advice: beware giving new bosses too much of your intellectual property. Resist the temptation to wow the new boss until you are sure your hard work will be appropriately recognised.
5. The ‘faint praise’ boss
Another dangerous form of idea thief, the “faint praise” boss gives only modest recognition to the employee’s idea and hard work when discussing it at higher levels. They give enough credit to protect themselves from claims of workplace plagiarism, and not enough to suggest they had a minor role in the good idea or excellent piece of work. This boss has a habit of blocking information flows and excluding team members from higher-level meetings. They say they told their boss about your excellent work, but you only have their word to go on.
Sadly, workplace idea thieves are a permanent fixture of too many organisations. I suspect the problem will worsen in this era of increased casualistion, contract work and shorter tenures in white-collar jobs. Managers will be under even more pressure to impress early, to justify their stay. The temptation to self-promote, using others’ work, will surely increase.