The scenario: You share an idea in a meeting. No one acknowledges it. Then a colleague suggests the same thing. He gets praised. What should you do?
It’s a tricky situation to negotiate, especially since many women feel it is more likely to happen to them than their male colleagues. Anything having to do with workplace dynamics and sexism can get contentious quickly. But staying calm is the key to getting results. "You want to emotionally engage everyone else and make room for yourself at the table," says Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and author of the forthcoming book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. "Part of the delicate dance is to raise your status without lowering the status of others."
Here’s how you can do just that.
Your first impulse may be to stab the colleague who got credit for your idea with a pencil. But keep in mind two things. First, while he repeated your idea without acknowledging it, he didn’t control everyone else’s reaction. That’s a different matter that also has to be dealt with. And second, anything combative you do in the moment will probably backfire. "That’s not going to fix the issue. It’s only going to provoke the issue," says Shapiro. Instead, indulge in a redemption fantasy. The best possible outcome is that your colleague comes to realize what happened and becomes a champion for your ideas. That’s not completely crazy. After all, he’s already demonstrated that he thinks your ideas are good ones!
Being undercut in a meeting can make you feel disempowered, but the truth is that you have lots of options. Some are good and some are bad (storming out of the meeting is probably a bad one). But you can change your feelings about the whole situation, Shapiro says, by telling yourself, "I’m not a victim. I’m a powerful person who has the opportunity to help reshape our meeting process to make sure everyone has a voice."
Even if you don’t feel like doing so, there are rational reasons for giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. "There’s an important distinction between intent and impact," says Shapiro. The impact is clear: You feel marginalized. But the intent is less so. The person who repeated your idea could know exactly what he's doing, or he "could be completely naive to his habit," says Shapiro.
Maybe he got so excited about what you said he just had to say it again. Maybe your colleagues are ignoring you, or maybe everyone is half asleep and the person who repeated your idea just spoke louder. The truth is, you don’t know what everyone else in the room is thinking, so assuming that everyone would like to continue working together in a genial manner is probably the best way to ratchet things down a notch. In wartime negotiations, Shapiro talks of trying to "acknowledge the humanity" of the other side.
Maybe your colleague has been working really hard and feels unappreciated, and taking excessive credit in meetings is one way he’s trying to satisfy that need. That doesn’t make it right, but it is more constructive to approach a conflict from the perspective of figuring out what’s going on with the other side than assuming evil designs.
While you would like to get credit for your ideas, the broader issue is making sure that people trust each other and feel safe to share their ideas. For its famous "Project Aristotle," Google spent two years analyzing its teams, and learned that in those that perform best, team members know that they can depend on each other. They experience "psychological safety."
A big chunk of that is everyone feeling like he or she can contribute ideas and be heard. If you don’t feel you are being heard, then by definition your team is not making its members feel safe, and the group is not going to perform as well as it could. So focus on that. The upside of this process focus? "Nobody in particular is being blamed," says Shapiro.
Whoever is running the meeting is responsible for making sure that everyone has a voice. So if this happens regularly, or even if it just happened once and you want to avoid it happening again, reach out to the leader and discuss the process problem. Say what you experienced, and mention that being ignored "makes it much more difficult for me to be fully present and contribute in the meeting," Shapiro suggests saying. "Do you have ideas on how we might work to improve the meeting process? Is there anything you want me to do?"
Asking for advice is a great way to turn someone into a supporter. If the team leader doesn’t have any ideas, you can suggest everyone speaking for one minute in turn, or having a scribe write everyone’s ideas on a flip board. That way all ideas are acknowledged when they are first said, regardless of who says them.
If everyone does have a good rapport and the team is highly functional, you could say something as soon as the transgression occurs. The lowest-risk strategy is something neutral such as "I’m unclear about the roles we’re all playing right now. Are we all coming up with ideas, or are we evaluating them now, too?" If it is clear to you that others noticed what happened, you could simply thank the person who repeated your idea for supporting your idea.
But if that seems too risky, afterwards approach the person from a position of curiosity. You want to learn what just happened. Don’t use the word why. "The word ‘why’ signals that I’m attacking you," says Shapiro. Instead, try phrases such as "Did you notice that happened?" and "What was your reason for that?" You are on firm ground saying something like "Here’s how I felt." Ideally, the person will state that he heard your idea and wanted to make sure it registered, and that he will make sure to credit you in future discussions about it.
An adversary becomes an ally, and that’s the best of all worlds. But even if that doesn’t happen, you have put him on notice without embarrassing him in front of colleagues. That solves part of the problem. You have raised your status without lowering his. When you master this delicate dance, there is no workplace problem you can’t handle.