How to approach a boss who takes credit for your ideas

Being direct is usually the best option, says one expert

What should you do when your boss takes credit for your ideas? Art Markman, a University of Texas psychology and marketing professor, says there's a clear first step: figure out if your boss is a narcissist.

Markman writes for Fast Company, and he was responding to a reader seeking advice on a difficult situation. The boss "likes to have our team of three have collaborative brainstorming sessions," the reader wrote, "but then when we have meetings with the rest of the company, he always presents the ideas that I came up with" as his own.

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Markman notes taking credit for a team's work is a failure of leadership. "Great leaders share credit publicly, because they realize that nurturing talent is an important part of a leader's job," he explains.

A 'wake-up call'

Dealing with the issue depends on what is causing a boss to take credit for others work. It may be that the boss is having difficulty transitioning to a leadership role. "When people first climb into the ranks of leadership, they often feel as though they had to compete fiercely with others to get where they are," Markman writes.

However, when leading a team "success is measured at the group level" Markman explains, adding "Until new leaders recognize this shift, though, they may remain competitive." When the problem is caused by a boss being unsteady in a new role, Markman suggests documenting the issue to guide a conversation with them about your concerns.

During the meeting, Markman says you should acknowledge the situation is "awkward," but be direct in communicating that the behavior is bothering you. "If your boss is still getting the hang of leadership, the meeting should serve as a wake-up call… he might even thank you," Markman writes.

Dealing with narcissists

Some bosses also take credit for staffers' work because of more challenging personality faults—namely, being narcissists.

"Narcissists are people whose self-esteem depends on the energy and accolades of others," Markman writes. And unfortunately, he says, they are often promoted to leadership roles because they are good at making "sure that everyone is aware of their achievements."

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Narcissists "often act as though success is a zero-sum game, so that other people's success diminishes their own," Markman writes. When dealing with a boss who is a narcissist, Markman cautions workers to "tread lightly." However, they should still document instances of their boss taking credit for their work and other aggressive behaviors.

If your boss is "aggressive or vindictive toward people who criticize him, then a direct discussion could have a negative impact on your career and your stress level." Instead, Markman advises workers to seek the advice of a trusted third party.

For instance, some companies have an ombudsman that can assist in dealing with complaints. Alternatively, if you have a good relationship with a senior executive, it may be productive to bring your concerns directly to them. In those cases, Markman says you can raise the topic as asking for mentorship.

Although, Markman emphasizes you should bring concerns directly to your manager whenever possible. "That friendly conversation may be awkward but is likely to yield a positive result," he says (Markman, Fast Company, 5/20).

The takeaway: In situations when a boss takes credit for his or her subordinates' work, it is usually helpful to approach them directly with concerns about the practice. However, if they have a narcissistic personality type, workers should seek guidance from a trusted third party.

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