Ideas are the most valuable currency today. They bring in dollars, euros, and even crypto.
But like any currency, they can get stolen. In fact, idea-stealing is a common phenomenon in the workplace.
Bosses and coworkers steal each others’ ideas. Companies steal pitch decks and features from their competition. And idea kleptomaniacs cannot resist stealing ideas, even the ones they don’t need.
Good ideas lay the foundation for all major and minor accomplishments. And you can accomplish a lot if you don’t care who gets the credit.
But if you don’t get enough due credit, you risk getting marginalized and being taken for granted. If you work in silence, you get rewarded with more work while lazy people descend like wolves, steal your ideas, and make a killing.
Fighting to showcase your ideas is not the solution either. People vying for individual attention never works in the best interests of a team. If you’re not a good team player, you’ll get isolated. And nobody goes far as a lone wolf. Even successful entrepreneurs need friends from whom they bounce ideas off and get new ones.
So how do you stop people from stealing your ideas? The answer lies in striking a balance. Between investing credit and choosing the right moments to present your thoughts.
Here are three tips to skillfully walk this tightrope.
1. Keep Communications Channels Open
For about twenty years, I watched helplessly as classmates and colleagues stole my ideas. At school and college, I shared ideas for drama themes and solutions for case studies with classmates, hoping to appear smart in front of them. They, in turn, presented the same ideas to the professors and appeared smart in front of them.
At work, I’d ask colleagues for their views on ideas I wanted to share with the manager. My colleagues often said nothing. Instead, they ran to the boss’ cabin as if they’d just experienced an Archimedes moment, and shared the ideas as their own. No prizes for guessing who got promoted.
We bounce our thoughts off peers in the hopes that they’ll warn us if we sound stupid. This innocent behavior makes us open all our cards to others. Then we feel like crap when they use sneaky ways to win.
Here’s another point. An idea is rarely stupid. In fact, presented as a question, it can spawn better ideas. What matters is whom you share it with, and when.
So a better approach is to share your thoughts directly with decision-makers. Do it when they have the mental bandwidth to absorb what you propose. Instead of shouting over others in a meeting where your idea could get lost—or worse, stolen—share it when your manager is enjoying a quiet moment. Maybe after lunch, at the end of the day, or when the workload is less.
You can bypass the crafty middleman. You can get the right people to notice your work. And you can do all this without stepping on people’s toes.
To achieve this, it’s important to keep communications channels with decision-makers open. And that only happens when they trust that you know what you’re talking about.
2. Build Expertise in Your Field
It’s useful to be good at your work, but it’s not enough. If you’re just good at doing what you’re told, you’ll get replaced by a cheaper option before long.
Good has plenty of competition today. You have to be more. You have to become an expert—someone excellent at execution and strategizing.
When you can offer insights that decision-makers find useful, you raise yourself a notch in their eyes. They feel compelled to listen when you speak and even solicit your opinion. And they give you more room to maneuver.
When I was working with a client, an employee on their side took up the role of streamlining the communications between the CEO and me. In other words, he wanted all the correspondence between the client and me to pass through him.
It was smooth in the beginning. Then I discovered that he would withhold some information I’d send the client. He’d also pose the questions I sent them as his own. If this went on, it wouldn’t be long before he convinced them to replace me (possibly with one of his cronies).
So I began marking my emails directly to the CEO. The CEO didn’t mind. In fact, our communication improved. Eventually, the employee quit while the client and I continued working together for two years.
I got away with this because I kept in touch with their decision-makers since day 1. I would suggest ideas that led to quick wins, offer novel solutions for problems on conference calls, and would swiftly complete tasks in my bucket.
This helped me cement a position as an expert in their minds. It built trust between us. And it became possible because I invested in educating myself on their industry and on my craft.
Most people are too busy worrying about their seats at the table to do anything else. Thus, collecting even a little knowledge in your domain gives you a massive edge.
Invest in yourself. Read books and articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts. Experiment. You’ll stumble upon new ideas. You’ll always have useful suggestions to solve problems. And decision-makers will value your perspectives.
Of course, you cannot protect all your ideas. Many of them will get stolen no matter what you do. If you let it get to you, you’ll become a grouch. And all your brainpower will account for nothing.
That’s why you cannot afford to ignore the final point.
3. Focus on What’s Important
I was livid when I got to know the schemes the employee on the client’s side was running. I typed out a nasty email demanding an explanation.
Thankfully, I didn’t hit send. If I had, he would’ve feigned ignorance. And he would get fodder against me to feed the client.
It was tough to remind myself of the goal: to safeguard my contract without offending the CEO. This meant I had to focus on the work. I had to let this transgression pass. So that’s what I did. I acted like I didn’t know about it. And to avoid it from repeating, I began direct interactions with the client.
Life isn’t linear or rational. Things don’t make sense. People don’t collaborate even if it’s in their best interest. Or they pitch your idea to you as if they conjured it. This happens to me even now. Clients dismiss my ideas only to suggest them to me after two weeks.
Here’s what I’ve realized. Not everyone is trying to steal your ideas. Often, it doesn’t strike them that the seed of the thought that grew in their minds got planted by you. It’s not malice, it’s just life.
So shift your mindset. Focus on getting the job done. Let your boss and colleagues steal a few ideas and appear smart. And when you get credit, invest it. Thank the people who helped you. These relations will help you build the most valuable skill — the ability to get things done.
Sharing ideas within boundaries doesn’t just build strong relations. It also turns you into an idea machine. Hoarding leads to an idea-drought. Distributing them leads to multiplication.
“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” — Annie Dillard
You cannot safeguard all your ideas like gold in a bank locker. But you can build a reputation as an ideas-person.
Here are three ways to do it:
- Show your cards to the right people. Don’t expect your work to talk for itself. Keep communications channels with key people open.
- Become an expert in your role. Show up with insights, offer useful solutions, and do your tasks well. Then, people will solicit your opinions.
- Accept that some ideas will get stolen. Focus on the final goal. Doing the work is more effective to prove yourself than using words.
Hoarding causes scarcity, sharing leads to abundance. And an abundance of ideas makes the world a better place.