There’s nothing more infuriating than someone taking credit for your work. We’ve all had this happen at one point or another: you share an idea with a colleague and then hear him repeat it in a meeting; you stay late to finish a presentation yet your team member accepts all the praise; you lead a long overdue project to completion and your boss tells the higher-ups it was his doing. How should you handle these situations? Is it okay to speak up right then and there? Or should you keep quiet? And how can you make sure that you get the credit you deserve in the future?
What the Experts Say
We want to believe that our work speaks for itself. But “in the real world, it matters who gets credit,” says Karen Dillon, author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. “That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments.” And you can’t assume that people will notice the time and effort you put in, says Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and author of the HBR article, “Make Your Enemies Your Allies.” “With collaborative work, it’s not always clear who has done what,” he says, which leaves the door open for a colleague to take undue credit. Here’s what to do when someone tries to claim your work or ideas as their own.
Take time to calm down
You may be tempted to call the person out right away, but Uzzi says this is a “big, big mistake.” There is no sense in making a scene in a meeting or confronting your colleague in the hallway. “You look petulant, like a kid who’s folded her arms and is pouting,” says Dillon. Plus “if you’re emotionally piqued at being ripped off, it’s not the time to talk about it. Neurologically your mind is not working at its best and you may get out-argued,” says Uzzi. Take a day or two to calm down. But don’t stew about it for so long that, by the time you talk to the person, you’re ready to explode. You also want to make sure the incident is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Assess the severity of the situation
“Most people jump to conclusions and think right away: ‘They’re trying to make me look bad’ or ‘They’re only interested in making themselves look good,’” explains Dillon. But more often than not it’s just an oversight. “I see it with my students all the time,” says Uzzi. “During a presentation they intend to say ‘we’ but then under pressure, they freeze and end up using ‘I’ the whole time.” Consider the possibility that your credit-stealing colleague’s behavior might be unintentional. Or it might not be as egregious as you initially thought. Perhaps you remember that your boss did mention your name a few times during the presentation or recognize that your colleague was combining your brilliant idea with his. Uzzi suggests writing down what you would say to the person if you were to talk to her. Let that sit and then go back and look at it again. Ask yourself: How much does this really matter? Will it negatively impact my career? Not every piece of work has to have your name on it and managers often take credit for the work of their subordinates. “Making your boss shine is part of the gig,” Dillon explains. “You may not get credit for the idea or for slaving over the analysis, but hopefully your boss absorbs that you’re an important part of her team.”
Instead of making accusations, ask questions. This shifts the burden of proof to your colleague: he has to explain why he felt justified taking credit for the project or idea. “Research shows that it’s much better to ask why it happened than to make a claim,” says Uzzi. You say something like: How did you feel the presentation went? Did you feel like you were able to hit all the main points? Some might see this strategy as passive-aggressive but it will give your colleague an opportunity to recognize his mistake. If that doesn’t happen, you can say something along the lines of: I noticed that when you talked about the project you said “I” instead of “we.” Was that intentional? Why did you present it that way? Dillon says that your goal isn’t to pin blame but to “show them that you noticed and that you didn’t think it was right.”
Remedy the situation