Opinion: Light bulb moments and owning the idea

Bright spark: As an employee of Thomas Edison's, Nikola Tesla received little credit for his breakthrough work on electrical currents.
Bright spark: As an employee of Thomas Edison's, Nikola Tesla received little credit for his breakthrough work on electrical currents.

As a career counsellor and coach, I regularly hear clients talk about the importance of giving credit where credit is due.

It seems that there is little that frustrates Australian workers more than putting hard work into a project or idea only to see their boss (or someone else) pitch it as their own. 

I found myself pondering this paradox, because if Australian workers hated having their ideas stolen, why were Australian workers stealing them in the first place?

A brief internet search has me concluding that there is a plethora of reasons why a person will take credit for the idea or work of another.

However, many of the reasons for it boil down to power. 

I’m sure we are familiar with the concept of intellectual property rights – if we work for a company, then all of our ideas, research and work is the product of the company and as such begs the question who actually ‘owns’ the idea in the first place?

Can a boss cite ownership due to seniority in the power stakes in a company and claim your idea as the product of their leadership? It seems that this is not an uncommon justification. 

Thomas Edison famously paid Nikola Tesla $50,000 to improve his system for electrical current, which he subsequently did.

Thomas Edison’s company received the credit because Tesla was working for him.

Steve Jobs is from this school of thought as well.

He famously said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

However the unspoken ending to that quote is “and we can take credit for it while making a bucket load of money.”

For the record, the money that Tesla missed out on through being denied the credit for his ideas and developments was $12million; a figure significantly higher than the $216,000 he was actually paid for his “service.”

The greatest power play in the theft of ideas is made in its impact on the original idea creator. When the credit for an idea, research, or proposal is not given where credit is due, the original creator usually feels disempowered, invisible, undervalued, unimportant, used and taken advantage of.

It leads to disengagement in the workplace. Performance, productivity and morale decline.

It is said that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses, and the failure to give credit where appropriate is a significant factor in how people feel about their supervisors.

It is, therefore, so important to acknowledge when a colleague has had a light bulb moment, or has worked hard to pitch a proposal. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because of the impact that it has on the functionality of the team. 

It has been suggested that not all occasions where ideas have seemingly been “borrowed” are done so out of malice or a self-centred myopic drive for success.

Psychologists have researched the phenomenon of Cryptomnesia, where people don’t realise that they have stolen an idea.

This is based on the belief that our thought processes exist as a fusion of things we’ve heard, experienced, read and seen, but we re-generate them not as a memory, but as what we believe to be a fresh ‘new’ idea.  

It is true that we cannot exist in a bubble. We will always be standing on the shoulders of giants as we find our inspiration for new ideas and improvements.

It is true that we cannot exist in a bubble. We will always be standing on the shoulders of giants as we find our inspiration for new ideas and improvements.

We leverage our knowledge, our education, our understanding of the world around us to build our brave new ideas, but can we ever truly “own” them?

Are we perhaps focused on the wrong thing?

Is Shakespeare any less brilliant for borrowing plots from other works? Is Sir Isaac Newton any less a thought leader for building on the ideas of Aristotle? 

No one likes to see their own ideas passed off as someone else’s.

If it happens to you, you don’t have to accept it to maintain the status quo, but nor do you have to be confrontational. Credit is about recognition of personal value, after all, and how you manage the situation will speak volumes.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer, counsellor and coach at impressability.com.au