Ask Annie

Does it matter if your boss steals your ideas?

July 29, 2011: 11:04 AM ET

Having a reputation for being a problem-solver is a valuable thing, but relinquishing credit to a boss is often smart as well. With peers, it's another matter.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: At the company where I worked until recently, I had a couple of colleagues who were master manipulators and who frequently got rewarded for ideas and improvements I came up with. That was one reason why I left that job. But now, I seem to have gone from the frying pan into the fire. I just came from a meeting where my current boss talked about his clever new cost-cutting strategy without once mentioning that I thought of the whole thing and laid it out for him.

A big part of our performance bonuses and overall evaluations here are based on how many good ideas we have, so it makes me nervous that, once again, I'm not being recognized for what I'm contributing. A friend tells me not to worry about it because as long as I keep making my boss look good, I'll be okay. Is he right? — Too Anonymous

Dear T.A.: In a word, yes. With all the palaver these days about personal branding and blowing your own horn as essential career survival skills, it's easy to see why this situation would make you uneasy. Moreover, it's certainly true that a reputation as an innovative thinker is an asset worth protecting.

According to Peter Handal, the question is, protecting from whom? Handal, CEO of leadership development consultants Dale Carnegie Training, sees a big difference between peers who appropriate your ideas, as at your old job, and a boss who takes your suggestion and runs with it.

That's because your colleagues are direct competitors in ways that your boss is not. "You do need to avoid letting colleagues steal your thunder, but it has to be handled in a friendly, low-key way," Handal says.

One approach: Keep your best stuff under your hat until you get a chance to mention it to your whole team at once, either in a meeting or in an email to the group. "That way, there's no doubt about where the idea came from," he notes.

If it's already too late for that, don't hesitate to speak up in a meeting with something like, "When I first brought up this idea to Howard, he made a really good suggestion about it…" Says Handel, "Find a subtle way to claim credit. People will get the point."

By contrast, if it's your boss who's latched on to your idea and neglected to attribute it to you, how should you respond? "Say 'thank you,'" Handal says.

Those performance bonuses and evaluations you mention are, after all, under your boss's control. "He's the one you're trying to impress," Handal notes. "Making him look smart to higher-ups and having him depend on you for good suggestions is certainly not going to do you any harm."

Handal adds that, as a CEO himself, he sometimes lets people assume he thought up something that really came from someone else. "If the person who suggested it is not the most popular with the intended audience -- let's say, for example, that he or she is in a department that has been feuding with another department -- then I may pull my punches and pretend his or her idea is mine, simply because I know it will get a fairer hearing," he explains.

"But of course, I still know whose it was," he adds. "Your boss does, too."

Another factor to consider, says Robert Herbold: "In most big companies, by the time any idea gets put into practice, it's been modified by so many different people that the idea of any one person getting credit for it is pretty unrealistic."

Herbold runs the Herbold Group, an executive coaching firm whose clients include Pfizer (PFE), Dell (DELL), PepsiCo (PEP), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). A former chief operating officer at Microsoft (MSFT), Herbold wrote a book called The Fiefdom Syndrome: The Turf Battles that Undermine Careers and Companies -- and How to Overcome Them.

"The two things you want are, first, for your boss to think you're doing your job very, very well," says Herbold. To make sure of that, he recommends asking for feedback as often as every three or four weeks.

"And second, you want your performance evaluations to note that you come up with more than your fair share of ways to improve things," he says. "If both of those are happening, you really have no worries. If you get too hung up on getting credit, it will eat you alive."

In other words, your friend has a point. "Don't forget that the goal is to move the company forward, not to get bogged down in politics and personalities," says Handal.

Or as a plaque on Ronald Reagan's desk used to say: "There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit."

Talkback: Have you ever had a coworker who stole your ideas? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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