There’s nothing more infuriating than sharing an idea, only to hear it repeated by someone else at your next meeting. But these idea thieves may not even realise they’re doing it.

You're sitting around a conference table with your colleagues, looking for a solution to a problem. Ideas are flying around the room, but nothing sticks.

Out of nowhere, you're struck with a brilliant idea. There's a long, dismissive pause. Then the chaos returns.

One in five bosses admitted to regularly stealing their employees’ ideas

A week later, your boss presents the exact same idea. As the group celebrates her stroke of genius, she seems genuinely proud. You spend the rest of the meeting thinking up 50 different ways to out her as a fraud.

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For many, the situation is all too familiar. In a 2015 poll of 1,000 workers, one in five bosses admitted to regularly stealing their employees’ ideas. Even worse, every single one had done so at least once. In all, nearly half of workers felt their ideas had been hijacked to make someone else look good.

Yet research suggests that in a surprising number of cases, your colleagues didn’t realise they were doing it.

Cryptomnesia is a little-known memory glitch which involves mistaking a memory for an original thought

Enter cryptomnesia, a little-known memory glitch which involves mistaking a memory for an original thought. It means, literally, hidden memory. And from the legendary rock hit with uncannily similar chords to those from an earlier song, to the surgeon who claimed to have pioneered a new technique which has been taught for years, it’s been implicated in some high-profile cases of copying.

Those currently suffering under a kleptomaniac might think this sounds rather generous, but consider this: can you remember where you learnt about the death of David Bowie? Or when you learnt what an emoji is?

Memory trick

When you start to think about it, the provenance of what you know is surprisingly hard to pin down. That’s because there are, in fact, two kinds of long-term memory which can be consciously recalled.

Let’s say you attend a conference. While you’re there your brain will be busy updating the autobiographical record of your life ­— where you are and when, who’s saying what, whether or not it’s raining — a timeline of personal experiences, one after another. This is your episodic memory.

Then there’s the actual content of the talks. While initially this is stored in the same place, eventually most general knowledge — facts, concepts and meanings — will be extracted and linked with similar knowledge in your semantic memory. This includes things such as capital cities and maths equations.

Once you start to see it, you’ll find these innocent slip-ups happen disconcertingly often

This dual system makes recall a lot more efficient (it’s so you don’t, for example, have to remember which teacher told you that Paris is the capital of France every time). But stripped of their original context, remembered ideas may have a false feeling of novelty. And if you do realise you’ve dredged up a suggestion from your last conference meeting, you’re unlikely to remember who to credit.

Once you start to see it, you’ll find these innocent slip-ups happen disconcertingly often. There’s that creeping self-awareness as you re-tell a joke to the person who made it up or the galling moment you notice your eloquent argument was lifted word-for-word from an article you read that morning.

Dealing with a kleptomaniac

Colleague can’t stop stealing your ideas? Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, shares her tips

Do:

  • Remain calm and give the person the benefit of the doubt
  • Ask yourself how important it is that you get credit – especially if the guilty party is your boss
  • Ask gentle questions like ‘I noticed you didn’t credit me for that idea. Was that your intention?’
  • Pay attention to your tone of voice
  • Appeal to their better nature. You might say ‘I know we both want to do what’s fair’, for example

Don’t:

  • Come in pointing fingers
  • Load questions with an emotional charge

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. “Most of the time we walk around with little bits of fiction sprinkled throughout our memories and we don’t even realise it,” said Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of Washington.

But back to the office. Needless to say, not all copying is unconscious. So how common is it? And how can you tell when it’s happening?

Unconscious process

In one early experiment, volunteers were asked to take turns naming words in a single category, types of four-legged animals, for example. Later each participant was asked which words they had contributed — dog, sheep, elephant — and told to think of several more. The volunteers unconsciously took ownership of other peoples’ words up to 9.8% of the time.

There’s no way to be sure, but there are conditions in which cryptomnesia is more likely to occur. First let’s state the obvious: good ideas are more likely to be stolen than bad ones. And regular targets, take heart. Studies have shown that not only is the quality of the idea important, but also the credibility of who thought it up. Of course, both are also equally prized in more calculated intellectual theft.

You’re more likely to find a colleague basking in glory that’s rightfully yours if you’re of the same gender

There are other tell-tale signs. You’re more likely to find a colleague basking in glory that’s rightfully yours if you’re of the same gender, or in chaotic environments where it’s harder to keep a record of who said what.

And beware the next-in-line effect. The next person to speak is more likely to claim the previous person’s ideas for their own, possibly because they’re busy anticipating their own turn to speak. Even collaboration isn’t safe, since developing or contemplating an idea can lead to a false impression that it was theirs to begin with.

Creative convergence

In the advertising industry, where exposure to outside inspiration is part of the job, executives must run the gauntlet of cryptomnesia on a daily basis. Karen Corrigan, the founder of ad agency Happiness Brussels, knows this all too well. “It happens and it happens often,” she said. “Creatives who have been researching past adverts unconsciously remember them and come up with the same ideas.”

More serious blunders of attribution may be the price we pay for creativity

The real measure of an employee is how they react when they find out. Originality is a matter of creative pride — most of the time it’s a genuine mistake. “The good guys will say ‘oh, that exists already’ and it stops there. They want to use their own work.”

But it’s not all bad. There’s tantalising evidence that more serious blunders of attribution may be the price we pay for creativity. After all, as the cliché goes, nothing is ever truly original. In one playful experiment, researchers showed people pictures of imagined space creatures, then asked them to draw their own. Though their creations were different, the volunteers reliably incorporated many of the same features as their inspiration. What’s known as cryptomnesia in one context can look suspiciously like learning in another.

This is something Richard Beer, Creative Director at Don’t Panic London, can relate to. ‘When you’ve all read the same brief your thinking kind of converges. Even if you were to record a brainstorm and then play it back, it would be difficult to figure out who had which idea first.’

Since it’s impossible to know if the theft was unconscious, Loftus recommends focusing on prevention. This could include things like keeping meetings orderly, taking notes and actively paying attention to who said what, which research has shown makes people less susceptible to cryptomnesia.

And if you can't beat them: Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford... countless pioneers in their field shamelessly copied their competitors. Perhaps it's not where you got the idea that matters, it's what you do with it. If it all goes wrong, you'll have the perfect excuse.

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