How to deal with idea-stealing colleagues and insensitive bosses

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In a previous job of mine, one of my ex-bosses kept pressuring me incessantly to push my team to work “extremely hard” — aka, suck it up and push them to their limits.

Now, this team was already hitting targets, regularly doing overtime, and truly giving it their all. Having experienced severe burnout previously in my career, I decided to push back when I felt like it was becoming unreasonable:

I started by reminding them of the team’s recent achievements, and that everyone was working incredibly hard to meet the pressures. Then I added, “And to be honest, there are some boundaries that I am not willing to push because they erode my personal values — I have gone through burnout and I know how painful it is. I would hate to do that to anyone else.”

Their response? “Oh, I guess I am just more resilient than all of you. I just keep working.” 

Thankfully, it was a phone call and they couldn’t see my gobsmacked expression. If you’ve ever gone through a similar situation, where your boss and colleagues just seem to be operating on a completely different planet, you know the catch-22: how do you respond without offending, cursing and basically dooming your future career prospects? 

No worries — we have you covered.

Situation 1: How to make your colleague stop taking credit for your ideas 

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It’s happened to me more than once: I’ve come up with an idea in a meeting, only to be ignored, and for the same idea to be repeated by somebody else using different words. 

My initial instinct would be to get mad at the idea-stealer and the people who ignored me. 

But there are two ways of responding to the situation: the first requires a lot of self-introspection. If you’re not being heard, what does it reveal about your communication style?

If you’ve ever broken up with someone using, “it’s not you, it’s me”, you’ll know that it takes a lot of courage to assess yourself in the situation and evaluate whether you’re repeating patterns that need to be broken. Ask yourself: did I frame my idea in an easy-to-understand way? Was I too soft? Were the words I used not impactful enough? Was I too convoluted? 

Use the situation to understand your shortcomings, and learn how to improve your communication skills. Invest in yourself: find mentors who are willing to give you honest feedback; imbibe leadership advice through podcasts, videos, books, and learn how to get your voice heard. Check out Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques by Stanford GSB and WorkLife with Adam Grant.

Another trick was to record myself on video — I’d challenge myself to answer a tricky question, and watch myself respond. It helped me understand where I was losing my audience — I was using round-about language instead of directly coming to the point — and it also helped me correct my body language so I would seem more confident.  

That said, there’s still the matter of the idea-stealing jerk. Instead of letting it stew and wallowing in anger, confront the offender respectfully. Do not accuse — instead, mention that you’ve noticed that when you come up with an idea, they sometimes ends up presenting it as their own. Tell them you’re flattered that they thinks your ideas are great, but ask them why this has happened and give them a chance to explain themselves.

If they respond by saying that they were simply trying to amplify your good idea because it was ignored in the first place, then tell them to frame their dialogue differently. They could say, “Actually, what (you) said makes sense — she suggested that we lower our prices, and I would add on that….” Most people will hunker down, but if they proceed to still undermine you, take it to the boss.

Situation 2: Your boss keeps assuming that your job is “super easy” and keeps piling on additional work

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That’s the issue with being a star employee. The more you perform and make it seem easy, the more work you’re expected to do. Let me make it clear: this is what career progression looks like. You have to go above and beyond your current role to show that you’re ready for that promotion. It’s called growing pains.

But there are limits to what the human body can endure — even though I was working overtime every day and on weekends, my ex-boss thought that when I was doing “my job”, ie, editing, it was “incredibly easy” and it would be done “super fast”.

Yeah, a lot of problematic issues here, but let’s unpack it: they assumed that when I was actually doing what I was paid to do, it did not take any effort on my end. That’s like telling a Michelin-starred chef that because their a kitchen pro, a chicken dish that takes three hours to cook should take 30 minutes… 

I responded by telling my ex-boss that I had to work till 11pm every day to meet deadlines. But you know what, I was wrong. Admitting that you have to work overtime comes with a lot of unsaid baggage: Does that mean you are unable to manage your time properly? Does that mean that you have no boundaries and it’s ok to pile on the work? Not everyone will respond in the empathetic way you expect. 

So how would I have approached it today? 

Set boundaries — I should have set weekly one-on-one meetings with my boss to go through our focus for the week, the clients we’re pitching to, and progress reports. Talk about your own tasks for the week, so he or she can understand what’s on your plate.

And when you have something new that’s thrown at you, say politely, “Yes, I can take it up — but as you know, I am currently working on ABC and XYZ. Which one is most critical, and when is this new project due? Can we discuss timelines and resources please?” 

Don’t say no — no matter how chummy you and your boss are, management is looking for solutions not for problems. Show that you’re a problem solver and gain their trust. 

That said, don’t be a doormat – if you’re truly overwhelmed, logically outline your workload to your boss (try not to get emotional), and ask for support. Never meet your boss with a problem and no solution. Prepare what you would like the outcome to be, and present these solutions to her.

Be realistic — if you know that the company is going through a crunch, asking for a new head-count might be shot down, and you will be back to square one. Instead, think of how to leverage on existing resources or how to juggle workloads.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, after all.

This article was first published in Her World Online.