When I lived in Boston, a friend of mine asked me for some advice. I’ve been thinking about that advice since then, and decided to write about it. She was dealing with someone at her company who kept appropriating her ideas. Once he presented her ideas to the team as his own (even though part of the team had gotten the same email with the ideas). Another time (or twelve), he went to the head of IT with all of her ideas and took full credit for them. Because she was newer at the company than he was, she wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. After all, he had friends in other departments and much more tenure than she did.
Interestingly, I didn’t tell her to confront him head-on. Despite all of my writings about “own the bitch,” I knew from my own experience that head-on confrontation with a man who was already doing something he knew to be unethical (and stealing someone else’s ideas is ALWAYS unethical, people) usually would make things worse, not better.
The confrontation itself would be difficult: calling someone out for stealing your ideas is awkward at best. But then his reaction would go one of a few highly unpleasant ways. He would deny what he’s doing, he would give “good” and condescending reasons for why he was “helping” her by taking credit for the ideas, or–most likely and scariest–he would attack her in the most painful ways he could think of. The result wouldn’t be anywhere near what she wanted, which was a more collegial relationship and for him to stop stealing her ideas. If anything, the confrontation would simply make things worse because it would kill off the chances of having a good relationship in the future and increase the chances that he would try to get her fired.
What did I tell her to do?
I told her to take him out for drinks or coffee, tell him she really liked what he brought to the table, and ask him how she could help him meet his goals and how he could help her meet hers. Tell him she would always be there to help brainstorm ideas for him. I basically told her to see if she could manipulate him into a teamwork pattern (albeit not in so many words).
Then I told her not to share her ideas with him without CCing the head of IT, but that probably went without saying…
Why was this my advice?
In our conversation about this man (to whom I gave a nickname so impolite that I won’t write it on my blog), who I’ll call “Stealer,” it became clear that he had a very patriarchal view of gender. To him, it was just fine to steal her ideas, because her ideas already belonged to him, just like the fruit of other women’s effort. While this isn’t even remotely okay, it’s also nearly impossible to change attitudes like this single-handedly.
Stealer wouldn’t see her taking him to lunch and asking how he wanted her to help him as being patronizing–he would likely see it something he deserved.
(Sorry; I had to pause to take a shower after writing that. Ick.)
Stealer would probably assume that she was too stupid to see that he was stealing her ideas. Or he would think that she saw the savvy way he handled himself at the company and assume she was coming to him–as the wise, experienced man–for help.
In either case, this would push Stealer into feeling good when he helped her and move their relationship away from being adversarial.
At least, it would in theory.
In practice, it turned out a bit different. Stealer didn’t quit his patriarchal ways, but during the coffee, he apologized for “getting carried away” with his excitement about her ideas. And while it didn’t completely change his habits or condescension, having that coffee and conversation allowed my friend the space to call him on it when he took credit for her ideas. Eventually, he left the company for a great promotion and opportunity across the company.
I would have preferred to tell the story with a different ending, but humans rarely fit neatly into stories. I would have preferred if she had manipulated him into being a “team” with her and she leapfrogged him with the next promotion. In this case, however, I’ll take the small win and end the story here.