Theft at a Meeting: How to Respond When Someone Steals Your Thunder

By all accounts John Dennis was a passionate poet and playwright. He was also a spirited literary critic, which led to many recorded quarrels with his peers. [1] In 1704, John Dennis wrote a play that included a scene with a violent storm. Employing his usual dramatic flair, Dennis decided that he would reinvent the way that the sound of thunder was simulated and create a more authentic sound. While his new sound-effect was successful, unfortunately for Dennis, his thunder wasn’t enough to save the play and it was cancelled.

A few days later Dennis returned to the same theater, located on the famous Drury Lane, to see a performance of Macbeth. While sitting in the audience Dennis unexpectedly heard a familiar sound. The theater was using the thunder machinery that he had invented for his failed play! Appalled at what he was hearing, Dennis jumped to his feet and yelled something to the effect of, “That’s my thunder! They won’t play my play, but they steal my thunder!”

That’s My Thunder!

Have you ever sat in a meeting and listened as a colleague, particularly your manager, made a presentation where they took full credit for an idea that you’d shared with them earlier? We aren’t talking about something small where anyone could have eventually come to the same conclusion. We’re also not suggesting that every meeting gets a list of closing credits, unless it’s a union requirement! We’re talking about those times when there’s a big opportunity, with senior leaders in the room, and your boss is there outlining an important game plan, your important game-plan, to solve a company priority. While you’re sitting there confused, everyone is nodding thoughtfully as your boss goes deeper into explaining the solution that “they” came up with.

What can you do? One thing for certain is that you can’t control the circumstances around you, but you can control your reaction to the circumstances. You may be feeling as passionate as John Dennis and want to jump up and holler that your thunder is being stolen, but that would likely be the worst option for how to handle this. You would run the risk of appearing as a petty credit seeker instead of a team player.

Before going further, let’s acknowledge that it matters who gets professional credit for certain ideas. Promotions, raises and new project assignments are based on a company understanding your strengths. If someone is consistently taking credit for your ideas, that will likely cripple your chances of growth. It’s also important to recognize that there’s a range between being a doormat and insisting on credit for everything.

If you ever find yourself in the situation we’ve described, the very first thing to do is to take a pause, practice mindfulness techniques and clear your head. Getting yourself past the potential of doing something rash is critical at this moment.

Mentally adjust your accusation to instead be questions of intent:

  • Is it possible that your boss was swept up in the moment and had not intentionally taken credit for your idea?
  • Did your boss use “I” or “we” when presenting? Not listing you by name is not the same as taking full credit for your work.
  • Is it possible that it was implied that your managers’ work was a reflection of a team effort? Could it be that other team members’ ideas were also incorporated?
  • Is it possible that when you presented your idea to your boss, they had already come to the same conclusion and hadn’t thought to mention that to you?

Also Read: Series: Powerful Meeting Lessons from Leaders [How Winston Churchill Avoided Misunderstandings]

The Good Will Approach

After the meeting, see if you can try to find a quiet time to ask your boss why they presented this idea as their own. Asking, instead of accusing, is the ideal way to open dialogue about something that can otherwise become a contentious conversation. Their answer may surprise you, so go in with the intent to truly listen to what they have to say.

It’s important that your boss isn’t feeling threatened during this conversation. You can even propose an “out” for them that lets them save face, while still working in your favor. Redirection is a powerful way to do this. [2] For example, “I know that a meeting with so many people and a clock running creates pressure for a presenter.” You’ve just redirected blame from your boss to either the number of other people in the meeting, or to the pressure of time. They can now find footing on how to explain why they omitted giving you your due credit, without it being a counter to a personal accusation lobbed at them. Your main goal is that your boss sees that you aren’t going to call them out publicly, but that you definitely noticed and didn’t appreciate the lack of recognition.

In a best case, see if you can propose a solution for sharing credit on the idea the next time the leadership team works on this project.

Also Read: Series: Powerful Meeting Lessons from Leaders [How Begin/Brzezinski Found Common Ground]

Reclaiming Your Thunder

Even though your idea was not initially attributed to you, the opportunity to shift that is still possible. The brilliant Teddy Roosevelt famously stated,

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Teddy Roosevelt

Right now you and your boss may both know the same amount about the solution that was proposed, after all, your boss did a convincing enough job presenting the idea. The difference going forward is how much more passion you bring to transforming this from the idea stage, to an actually applied solution.

For the next phase of this project, come to meetings prepared to make contributions that show you care. Make a concerted effort to jump in on email threads instead of waiting to see if someone else responds first. These are opportunities where you can insert yourself and share your expertise.

As your new contributions are automatically credited to you, you’ll also be able to start sprinkling in comments about your original brainstorming sessions. While you can thank your boss for highlighting your idea, careful not to throw your boss under the bus. This is a golden opportunity to show your boss that you aren’t a threat and that they can trust you.

Once your colleagues see how much you care, they’ll know how much you know!


  1. Review on JSTOR
  2. Make Your Enemies Your Allies