My Boss Stole My Idea

My Boss Stole My Idea

I’m willing to bet that most of us have experienced some form of this. You’re sitting in a meeting, you say something relatively insightful, the meeting attendants barely bat an eye, five minutes later, someone else (usually white and/or male) says the exact same thing you said, and suddenly the room lights up and you’re left sitting there thinking, “Did I not just say that 5 minutes ago?” But, sometimes it goes even further. Sometimes you put your time, energy, resources, and connections into a project only for it to be ignored then recommended later by another colleague or even worse, your own boss.

I, myself, have never faced this situation. I’ve been strangely blessed with amazing (unsurprisingly, always women of color) bosses who are supportive and great teachers. Unfortunately, a good friend of mine was faced with this exact situation in her workplace.

She engaged her director and marketing team about an initiative. The only response she received were questions for clarity from marketing, which she answered. After that, the initiative was never brought up nor addressed. Six weeks later, her director brings up the idea during a monthly team meeting without even mentioning her name, and everyone joins in approvingly jumping for opportunities to help push the initiative forward.

One can only imagine the expletives running through her mind sitting in that meeting. My face would’ve probably easily read, “Are you f%cking kidding me?!” But that’s just me. Luckily, she controlled herself in the meeting and decided to address the issue in an email instead. Prior to pressing the send button though, she asked me to review the email and share my thoughts. After working through this issue with her, I realized many people may have experienced this in the work place without any guidance on how to address it. This post lays out 6 steps towards a solution when facing a similar situation:

Step 1: Identify Your Core Issue

Different people can be faced with the exact same situation and all walk away offended for different reasons. In order to properly address the issue, you must clearly identify it. Dig through some of the smaller irrelevant issues at play and find out what bothered you about the way this situation played out. Do you want to receive credit for your contributions or do you just want to be the person in charge? If you want credit, do you need that in a public forum or on a 1:1 basis? Do you want your ideas to receive more consideration? From whom? Do you just want to feel valued? Think carefully and identify your specific core issue.

Step 2: Considering the issue, identify your ask.

The core issue is what’s bothering you about the situation. The ask is what you would like to happen in the future. Remember to keep your ask realistic and strategic.

You may want to feel valued, but value is tough because that may require an organizational culture shift. So how can you put that in more realistic terms? You may have to do some research within your organization to first see if any employee reward system exists and then find out if other employees (and not just your friends) would be interested in having a reward system or having an improved one implemented if one already exists. If your organization does not have an employee reward system and people are interested in one, perhaps it’s something you could recommend directly to HR or in a team meeting, showing proof of the need and benefits.

For others, the ask may be something else like better responsiveness across the organization, receiving feedback, or more opportunities to lead. We’ll address how to approach these later in the post.

Step 3: Identify the Core Players.

To get to your solution, you have to be sure you are engaging the right people. How do you know they are the right people? “The right people” are the people who are in a position of autonomy to do the things you’re asking them to do. Your issue may lie solely with your boss for not acknowledging your efforts or it may also be with the rest of your team members for not engaging your idea until it was proposed by your boss.

Having a similar conversation with the other team members may provide you insight to the barriers they are facing to engaging your ideas and create a forum for you all to brainstorm ways to better collaborate in the future. Maybe they’re not interested in the idea either way, but when presented by the boss they feel as though they don’t have a choice. You won’t know until you have the conversation with the core players.

Step 4: Select the Best Communication Channel

Depending on the severity of the situation and the relationship between you and the core players, you may need to reconsider the communication channel you choose. When I had a boss, our offices were right next door to each other so I could pop over whenever I needed to ask a quick question or have a deep chat. In remote jobs, communicating over the phone may be the best way. Communicating via email is not ideal, but can be done with tact. If you communicate via email, be very concise and weary of tone. You may only need to communicate via email to schedule an in-person meeting.


Step 5: Clarify

No matter your communication route, be sure to clarify first. Instead of walking in and saying “You stole my idea! Why didn’t you give me credit?” you can say

“I noticed you presented something similar to my pitch in last week’s meeting. Was there something I was missing in my proposal?”

If you come in guns-a-blazing waving your attack wand, people are likely to become defensive and shut down or worse. Also, when addressing your boss, making the issue a learning experience is always better and you may actually learn something you did not know. Perhaps your boss knew that the only way other members of leadership were going to approve of this project was if it was presented by a peer. Other clarifying questions that are conducive to a solutions-oriented conversation are:

  • Did you all receive my correspondence?
  • What were your thoughts on the idea I proposed?
  • How could I have better engaged the team with my initial proposal?

These questions are seeking clarity and looking for opportunities for growth, rather than accusing and attacking.

Step 6: Make your issue their issue, and provide everyone with a solution.

This goes back to the idea of packaging interests that we talked about in the negotiation post, but adds in the element of managing up. Not all bosses care about the individual professional growth of their staff, but most bosses care about productivity. If you can tie your core issue and solution to improving productivity, you are likely to get a better response.

Ex: How can our team work together better so the burden does not always fall on you (the boss) to lead the work? How can I take on a bigger leadership role with more responsibilities to increase productivity (whatever productivity is for your organization)?

TIP: Be sure to pose your ask to them as a question and not a command, whether you’re addressing your boss or other team members who did not engage your idea.

To avoid this incident reoccurring in the future, share with your boss that you are more effective in a setting with consistent feedback. So if you share an idea, you would love their thoughts, whether they’re good or bad. You could even suggest a consistent performance review (if you have access to their calendar, come prepared with times you both have available over the next 6 months) so feedback becomes a systematic component of your work relationship. This is also a great way to keep track of your contributions when it comes time to request a raise.

The harsh reality is that we don’t always get credit for the work we do or the ideas we bring to the table. Being a part of a team that values you is important and unfortunately not all organizations have that culture. Fortunately, there are ways to address these situations when faced with them. My hope is that you are able to take these situations, grow from them, and push those around you to grow as well.

All the Best,


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