Killing Me Softly

When credit for an idea is stolen, more is lost than meets the eye

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Q: So here's the deal: I came up with an idea for a new video series. It was quite a feat to get budget secured, a strategy designed, and then executed with a creative agency over six demanding months. It involved a lot of tradeoffs, work, travel, and focus to get this series made. My team and I were incredibly proud of the final product. 

Before the videos become public (internally or externally), one of my (male) coworkers on an adjacent team decided to share our work with the CMO and CEO, essentially taking credit for the idea. He even created a derivative new project based on what we did, further benefitting from my creativity. 

My manager told me that's the way it goes when you're really creative, that people just steal your ideas and I should just deal with that fact. Problem is, I don't agree nor do I feel OK with that as a solution, but short of going to the CEO and saying that guy stole credit for my work I'm feeling helpless. 

What's your advice? 

—Stolen assets

My advice? 

Document. Everything. Each and every time.

Write an email (automatically date-stamped!) to a friend or colleague to share what happened.  Be specific. Name names. Do it as soon as it happens. This becomes a receipt to document the madness. 

Now, I doubt that’s what you wanted or even expected to hear. You probably wanted encouragement: to be resilient, dust yourself off, & focus on a horizon. 

But I want to be more for you. 

I see the constant selling of resilience — toughness, the ability to bounce back from bad situations — as a coping mechanism, not a solution. Yes, in light of a pandemic or a crappy boss, resilience is what we have to do, but it’s not what should be done. (To be 💯, keeping receipts isn’t a solution, either. Receipts are just a promissory note, a sign of hope that one day a solution is possible.)

You already know that your boss — by his non-action —  is in the wrong. He’s condoning stealing. Stealing ideas should be just as big a crime as stealing a car to take it on a joy ride. Now, sometimes, stealing ideas is hard to prove. I mean, sometimes an idea is just in the air. And two or more people come to it around the same time. In other situations — like this one — stealing is actively tolerated because you have less power than the person doing the robbery. 

The cost, though, is rarely understood. Your boss isn't just excusing the credit rightly due to you; he’s robbing the organization of your next contribution. Because the next time the org needs creativity, they won't know to come to find the Wildflower that is you; they will instead seek out the Thief.  


Allowing your assets to be stolen denies the value of what only you bring, and also a “house of mirrors” distortion of capacities for the whole organization. 

All because your boss couldn't be bothered. (Not all bosses are leaders.)

Receipts rarely solve the immediate problem. We keep them to hear our own voice challenging a wrong that is advertised as reality. And they give us something that might serve a better future.

Some examples of their good uses:

• If you get asked for a 360 review of your boss, you can offer the receipts as part of the feedback. After all, maybe your boss, if presented with this information, could be coached to have his team’s back?

• If you're in an all-hands meeting with the CMO who is talking about how much creativity is valued, ask, hey, how would you feel if an idea that was presented to you was stolen material from another colleague. Maybe the CMO wants to learn to suss out the inspiration of an idea to do his job better. 

• If* you leave for a much better job, you will be asked to do an exit interview. Maybe share receipts at that point, with the idea that the situation can improve for the next person? (*to be real, if this keeps up, it's not if, but when)

Your boss is right in one thing: You certainly will create more ideas. That's — by definition — what creative people do. But, by his actions, he’s negating just how valuable it is. He assumes, too, that he and the organization will continue to be the beneficiary of this generosity of spirit. That a shrug costs nothing.

But shrugs do have a cost. Shrugs deflate the soul. Shrugs say who sparked the original idea doesn’t matter. Shrugs harm the culture so innovation withers. 

I’m sad there is no good advice for this situation, Stolen Assets. 

It’s not fair to ask creative people like you to be "resilient" and "persevere" and show "grit," when the situation or system you’re in could be fixed. If we did that we’d be glorifying resilience, instead of removing harm. 

I'm sorry you're being treated like this. You deserve better. We all do. 

And because this is so apropos, you get a second music video this week. HERE is how you honor the original spark, by giving credit where it’s due: