If Ideas Are Cheap, Why Do We Care So Much About Getting Credit For Them?
When you’ve published a book, an interesting thing happens: people start using your ideas as if they were their own. There’s no ill intent here. Generally, there’s so much information available that people legitimately forget where one idea originated, including whether or not it started with them.
I’ve given talks where the organizer directly quotes my work without providing attribution. I’ve been interviewed by reporters who use my ideas in an article then don’t include me. I’ve even been invited to speak in a program only to find that the entire agenda has been designed around my book.
It’s easy to get triggered. It takes self-management (and deep breaths) to respond rationally when it feels as if your ideas are being taken from you. Or, as I’ve learned, to step back and look at the bigger picture.
After all, who owns ideas anyway? Marketing guru, David Meerman Scott encourages people to set their information free in the social media age. His perspective is that we derive more from the relationship and the interaction than from the ownership of the idea. When I’m feeling taken advantage of, I try to remember this.
Getting credit is not just a touchy issue for content generators, but for any professional – especially those career tracking through organizations. We want to be team players, but we also know that to get ahead we have to differentiate ourselves. Our ideas externalize our value, so laying claim to the best ones is only a natural response.
So how do we balance collaborative sharing with getting the credit we deserve? What makes us strategic but not selfish and protective? What should we just set free?
Consider these five strategies:
Be the change you wish to see in the office: model the sharing ethos with your language.
First, make sharing credit your default. If you run a team, embed it into the culture.
If you’re collaborating with a colleague on a project, be conscious about your pronoun usage. When sharing a jointly conceived idea, use “we” language instead of “I.”
Even if an idea or work product was mostly your doing, be generous with credit. Show your collaborator that you respect the work you accomplished together by adopting more “we’s” into your language, and it’s much more likely that others will follow suit.
Prevent idea-theft before it happens.
Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, suggests establishing roles and responsibilities before you start a new project with a coworker.
Design a chart that lays out each of your duties clearly; print it out or send it to your collaborator via email. Create a paper trail, so the chances of the other person (or you) taking unfair credit are less likely. Further, it provides clear lines so there’s enough individual credit to go around.
Speak up early.
On the other hand, for some of us, we eschew credit. Speaking up and taking the spotlight is uncomfortable. However, if you’re continually the last person to speak up, it’s probable that a more confident or aggressive person will offer their opinions before you—and even take credit for ideas that were conceived collaboratively. Sometimes, the only way to avoid others’ taking unfair credit is by having the confidence to speak up first.
Psychologist Art Markman offers the following advice for speaking up and getting your ideas out there: “If you are uncomfortable presenting ideas in meetings, then you need to practice. Speaking up in meetings is a skill. If you are worried that the words won’t come to you when you need them, practice before meetings. Find a quiet place in the office and actually practice describing the idea. It may seem silly to talk to the walls, but it helps to put words around new concepts.”
If someone takes credit for your work, don’t make accusations—ask questions.
It can be frustrating when we feel like we’re not getting our due credit, and that can cause us to act unconstructively. Instead, keep a cool head and ask good questions.
As Amy Gallo in Harvard Business Review notes, adopting this approach “shifts the burden of proof to your colleague: he has to explain why he felt justified taking credit for the project or idea.” If you found your colleague using a lot of “I’s” when talking about your jointly conceived ideas, pull him aside after the meeting and ask how he thought the meeting went or if anything was left unsaid. This gives him the opportunity to admit he could have done better including others on the team.
If he thought the meeting went well, then this gives you the opportunity to push a little harder: say that you noticed he was talking about your project as if he were the sole creator, and ask if that was intentional. By asking questions rather than placing blame, you can get to the bottom of the issue.
Make your contributions visible.
In the same Harvard Business Review article, Karen Dillon, author of the HBR guide to Office Politics, states “in the real world, it matters who gets credit. That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments.”
While it may be wise to let some things go, it’s also important to pick your battles. You need to get recognized for your key accomplishments, and part of that entails making sure your ideas don’t operate in a vacuum. Copy others on important project emails, so those in your organization can see what you are working on and who’s doing what. If you feel like a colleague has stolen credit and isn’t responsive to talking about it, go to your colleagues and set the record straight.
Ultimately, it’s all about balancing your own needs with those of the larger team. Keep the big picture in mind, and pay attention to that nagging feeling when you feel that you’re not being recognized appropriately. And always try to assume positive intent. Most people have no idea they are taking credit for your ideas – even as they’re doing it right in front of you.
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