How to Respond If a Man Steals your Idea…
You bring up a good idea in a meeting…but it falls flat and no one picks up on it. 5 minutes later “Bob” repeats the same idea and everyone says “Great idea, let’s run with that.” “Bob” is asked to lead the initiative.
You are incredulous, you think to yourself: “Wait Didn’t I just say that…?”
You go there… “He stole my idea!”
You are angry, frustrated, and then utterly deflated…
How often has this happened to you?
Too often, according to reports on women’s experiences in the workplace and extensive study of unconscious bias. Women have been encouraged to speak up with ideas; however, whereas men are rewarded for their assertions in meetings, women are penalized for talking too much. Men are taught to influence through commands, women learn to persuade through suggestions and questions. An open question is whether men ‘steal’ women’s ideas as part of their competitive nature or whether they pick up on women’s input that lacks powerful influence (e.g,. ‘softened’ to avoid social penalties)– or both.
Women have the opportunity to rise above these frequent situations to maintain their performance and resilience. Here are 5 strategies to keep your poise so you can be perceived as an effective contributor and play the role of a leader (even if you are the youngest person in the room).
- Appreciate – the most gracious and disarming response is to turn the situation around by appreciating the person. “Bob, thank you for picking up on that idea again, I agree its worthwhile idea because ___”. Or “I appreciate you seconding that idea Bob, it will help us to meet the deadline.” This approach receives a gold star because as a general rule its helpful to try to “make other people right”, and maintain a collaborative tone.
- Cool Down – You will be tempted to get emotionally reactive and take “Bob’s” behavior personally. The most helpful thing you can do is to not get caught up in the heat of the moment, and cool yourself down so you can act in the service of who you want to be and how you want to be perceived in the situation in the long term. Try “Cooling Breath”, in which you breath in through your mouth (as if you are sipping through a straw) and out through your nose. It takes you out of emotional hijack and puts you back in the part of your brain that thinks about collaboration and making long term relationships.
- Use Allies – If you see this behavior as a pattern on your team, notify your colleagues or the leader of the team. Its even more powerful to reinforce the point if the leader of the team (or your male colleagues) thanks “Bob” for bringing up your idea again. All of the women on the team can also play this role for one another, or even just agree with or offer support for one another’s ideas.
- Elicit Input – Research by Victoria Brescoll at Yale indicates that the best way to elicit ideas from all members of the team (male and female, professionals from all subcultures and perspectives) is to make it a group norm for each person to have a chance to offer their opinion. The team leader can structure the meeting so that each person is invited to weigh in on important decisions.
- Follow Up – You can offer to write up an elaboration of the idea (i.e., provide data backing the idea, put together a timeline/project plan for the idea, flesh out the idea, etc). That ensures you continue to be associated with ownership of the idea.
- Bonus: Humor! – Create relationships with your colleagues that are trusting and safe enough that you use humor to diffuse potentially awkward situations. Once multicultural men and women are aware of the long history of ‘stealing’ others ideas, everyone can be aware of and rise above it through humor. Consider a funny way of keeping a running score of when it happens or having a silly prize or ‘punishment’ to the person who does it.
Above all, don’t let a man’s recitation of your idea derail you from who you want to be as a contributor. Using these strategies you can use the opportunity to show your poise and leadership.
Tell me your thoughts…