Ask a Boss: My Co-worker Keeps Stealing My Ideas!

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Photo: John Waterman/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I work for a small company with a relatively flat organizational chart. Most employees answer to the CEO, myself included.

One of my co-workers, “James,” is involved in many aspects of the business. He is one of the longest-serving employees in the office. I work with both of them in my area, of which I am the only employee.

Though overall great, James has a habit of taking conversations between the two of us, and presenting them to the CEO as if they were his own.

For example, I will mention to him that I think we should focus on a particular issue in the next week for reasons x, y, and z. Then, while we are still talking, he will call our CEO over and say, “I think we need to focus on this particular issue, for reasons x, y, and z,” without mentioning our discussion.

Other times, he will check with me for an update on a particular issue, and then later give that update to the CEO in a meeting with all three of us, instead of asking me to go over the issue (again, this is in my area of expertise). He does not credit me, and I often have to jump in to make sure it is communicated properly.

Sometimes this comes off as if James is able to come to these conclusions without my expertise, other times it looks like James has to tell me what to do so my job is done properly, and at worst James will take credit for my idea.

I have tried “solving” this problem by not talking to James about issues away from our CEO, but that is pretty much impossible with our type of office and work. I will also try and speak before him in a meeting when certain issues come up, but that is difficult.

I do not know how to bring up this issue without sounding petty. I do doubt James is doing this intentionally. We are not competing for the same position, and there is no chance he will one day be my supervisor. I value his opinion, and will ask him for advice. Not of these instances seem large enough in the moment to bother bringing up, but they certainly add up to a pattern.

To complicate matters, I have discussed with the CEO my future in this organization. Based on the growth in my area, it is not sure whether I should be leading the department in a couple of years, or whether to sooner hire someone above me. Though it’s definitely not decided, it’s definitely important that I appear as a self-directed leader and expert in this area.

So, do I bring this up to James? If so, how? Or should I continue to “solve” this problem privately?

P.S. Some of my friends think this dynamic is because I am a young woman, and both James and the CEO are older men. I sort of doubt it, as I have not gotten that vibe in other interactions.

Ugh, James.

It’s possible that James isn’t doing this deliberately, but it’s also possible that he’s well aware of what he’s doing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s thinking, I’m going to steal Jane’s ideas and pretend they’re my own. It could be more that his idea of showing leadership is to appoint himself the spokesperson for the two of you, of his own volition and without noticing or caring that you never consented to that arrangement. That makes him a blowhard and a crappy colleague … but there’s a reasonable chance that he hasn’t consciously processed that he’s continually stomping on your toes, and that he’ll back off if you tell him to.

Or, if we’re going to be thorough, it’s even possible that he’s not entirely off base in seeing this as his role. You didn’t say what his job is, but as one of the longest-serving employees there, it’s possible that he’s legitimately serving as a sort of COO or a gatekeeper to the CEO, and that he’s not totally out of line to be filtering other people’s information through himself. That doesn’t make it at all okay for him not to credit you for your ideas, but if he’s senior to you rather than a peer, it’s possible that there are more nuances here than just “co-worker stealing ideas.” Frankly, I doubt that’s the case, but I’m throwing it out there in case this is one of the small number of cases where it applies.

Luckily, you don’t need to figure out which of these explanations is the right one, because the way to proceed is the same for all of them.

First, talk to James and be direct about what you want him to do differently. Say something like this: “Hey, I’ve noticed that when I mention ideas to you, you’ll often present them to Bob without noting that they came from me. I want Bob to know what I’m contributing, so going forward I want to share my thoughts and ideas with him myself rather than you presenting them for me.”

If James is a thoughtful person, he’ll apologize and tell you he didn’t realize he was doing that. It’s fairly likely, though, that James will play this off as if you’re making a big deal out of nothing. If he does that, don’t let it unsettle you. Just say, “Well, I’d appreciate it going forward. Thanks.” You’re making a reasonable request, and it doesn’t matter if James thinks it’s a big deal or not. In fact, if it’s such a small deal, it should be really easy for him to back off.

But you also don’t want to rely exclusively on James to put a stop to this. You need to be speaking up and advocating for yourself in front of the CEO too. That means that if you see James taking credit for your ideas again, you should say something in the moment. For example, you could say, “Yes, that’s the idea I was sharing with James right before you came over. My thinking on this is …” (That second sentence there is important, because that’s you taking control of the conversation and not letting James lead it.) Or if you’re in a meeting where James starts giving your CEO an update that came straight from you earlier, you can jump in and say, “Actually, if I can jump in here, I can share what I told James earlier and add some details to it.”

Other phrases to have on-hand and ready to go:
• “What I was saying to James earlier about this was …”
• “I came up with this idea because …”
• “Let me jump in here since I talked to the client directly.”

In other words, assert yourself! Don’t feel like you have no choice but to sit by while James does this to you. Because these are your projects and your ideas, you have plenty of standing to jump in and make that clear.

It’s probably notable that you haven’t been asserting yourself like this previously, and that’s where I think your friends might be right that there are some gender dynamics in play. We live in a society where men often (not always, but often) feel oddly comfortable leading conversations that aren’t theirs to lead and taking ownership for ideas that didn’t actually come from them. And we also live in a society where women often (again, not always but often) hesitate to claim or defend their own ideas, particularly when doing so would mean pushing back against a James. So it’s likely that some gender dynamics are playing out here, and sometimes just spotting them and naming them in your head can make it easier to push through any hesitance to assert yourself.

And last, totally aside from the James issue, make sure that you’re thinking proactively about what other things you can do to ensure that the CEO is seeing you as an expert in your area. Make a point of having conversations with him when James isn’t around and, if appropriate in your office, write up your ideas and email them to him or set up a meeting with him to propose a new project or a new approach. Basically, ensure that James isn’t always present while you’re building a relationship with your CEO, so that you’re defining yourself rather than giving James the room to act as a filter.

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