Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 most uncomfortable work situations of 2015. See the full list here.
Collaboration is more than just a buzzword. It’s an important tool to many great ideas. But when one member of a team doesn’t want to share the spotlight, egos can get bruised.
Psychologist Art Markman helps a reader with a coworker who seems to have forgotten that there is no “I” in team.
I work closely with one of my colleagues on my team, and we almost always present ideas and projects to our boss together. We work well together, but he always talks over me when we present, and says, “I thought” or “I did,” even when we both came up with the idea (or worse, when I did!)
How can I make myself stand out for promotions and raises, when he’s taking all of my glory? I don’t want to say, “Actually, that was my idea,” because that seems like it would come across as petty. Any other way I can approach this?
This is frustrating, but it can be a common experience.
There are two elements to what is going on here. One has to do with the way your colleague is speaking. The second, though, has to do with your own behavior in meetings with the boss.
First, you should have a conversation about this problem with your colleague. You get along well with him, so this shouldn’t be a problem. This behavior has happened often enough that you have noticed it, and (rightfully so) it bothers you. The next time you sit down to work together, let him know that he is often saying “I” when he really means “we” when talking with the boss.
There are a few possibilities for what happens next. Whether he was intentionally trying to take credit for your joint ideas or not, he may start being more careful with his words. Most people are reasonably honest. When you call them out on a behavior that is inappropriate, they will often work hard to fix it in order to keep the peace in the workplace.
I certainly hope that is what happens here.
However, there is also the chance that your colleague will not change his behavior. He might argue with you when you raise the issue, or he might agree in the moment, but continue I-ing instead of we-ing.
Regardless of what your colleague does, though, you need to make some changes in your own behavior.
First, ask yourself why your colleague is always the one to present your ideas. After all, even if he is diligent about saying “we,” the boss will remember that he was the one who did all the talking. Your colleague will end up getting more of the credit for your joint work, even if he uses the right pronoun. That means that you need to take more initiative to be the one to present ideas to the boss. You can either ask to do that explicitly, or just be the one who starts talking at the start of a meeting. You should, of course, model the right behavior by saying “we” for joint ideas, but at least you are now in control of the situation.
Second, if your colleague starts first and continues to say “I,” participate in the discussion by adding elements to it. Pepper your conversation with references to the joint work you did. By speaking up about the idea and making clear that it was jointly developed, you have corrected your colleague’s speech without having to call him out directly. Your boss will get the idea that the work is being done jointly.
If you are uncomfortable presenting ideas in meetings, then you need to practice. Speaking up in meetings is a skill. If you are worried that the words won’t come to you when you need them, practice before meetings. Find a quiet place in the office and actually practice describing the idea. It may seem silly to talk to the walls, but it helps to put words around new concepts. I do it all the time. After the first couple of times you do it, you get used to the strangeness of talking when there is nobody there.
If you really have a fear of speaking up, consider joining a group like Toastmasters that helps people to practice speaking in public settings. Even if you never plan to get up in front of a group to give a speech, this kind of practice can give you the confidence to speak up at work.
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