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Managing People that Throw Others Under the Bus

What is being thrown under the bus?

At some point in our career, we meet a person that is quite happy to “throw others under the bus” rather than take responsibility for a mistake. 

The expression “being thrown under the bus” most likely has its origins in politics, notwithstanding the urban myths around baseball, Cindy Lauper and hockey. Merriam-Webster states the express means: “to criticize, blame, or punish (someone in a vulnerable position) in order to avoid blame or gain an advantage.”

In the context of business, it manifests itself through for instance a manager blaming his/her team member for a mistake, or a company executive shifting the blame for an issue to the company’s supplier or partner. It also commonly happens between team members when a deliverable is late or fails to meet expectations.

While this behaviour may seem trivial in nature in its intent to save face, it ultimately damages relationships and creates an environment of mistrust.

So, what steps can we take when we see or perhaps are on the receiving end of the behaviour?

Countering unwarranted blame 

Like any challenging issue, we need to identify the root cause for blaming behaviour. This will allow us to address it and prevent it from happening again. We need to understand if the behaviour is isolated to the individual. Or if it is systematic within the company’s culture.

Let’s use an example. You are Acme Company’s CFO and negotiating a contract with Beta Company’s COO. The contract is guaranteed by a lender, Charlie Company. Everything is on track until you receive an email from the COO. She tells you there is an internal accounting issue, and they are short of funds to honour the commitments made. The denials of responsibility begin. Quickly followed with “it’s not my job to solve this issue” and “you need to solve it yourself with the lender”. 

You can easily imagine how, once past the initial disbelief, reactions might escalate. Albeit most of the time unhelpful, reactions do tend to help an objective observer understand what’s really going on. 

Imagine that you learn that the COO is under pressure to wind down operations, is short-staffed, and is feeling pressure from every direction. Does this change how you deal with the situation?

Alternative reactions

Let’s consider some possible reactions:

  1. Voices rise and the conversation becomes direct, perhaps even a little curt.
  2. The CFO and/or COO deploy tactical steps to play the game (each looking to “win”).
  3. Minds come together and they collaborate to identify the best strategy for resolving the funding gap to their mutual benefit.
  4. The CFO connects with the lender to address and attempts to solve the gap him/her/them self.
  5. The CFO and COO do nothing and let the deal collapse.

Although common sense suggests that option 3 is the best course of action, in an individual or culture of blame the most constructive course of action is generally not the first choice. 

Leaving us to ponder how we ensure we never appear in the following way!

Combatting the choice to throw others under the bus

Eradicating blame tendencies starts with recognizing that the individual (or team) lack engagement. The kind of engagement that is deeply held, meaning it’s at an emotional level. When we tap into the heart and minds of individuals, we unlock their natural desire to do well. 

As human beings, we always deliver on what we care about!

Trust

So, change begins within a collaborative, trusting, and high communication relationship (or culture) to prevent the build-up of tension between individuals. Contrast this with how you manage personal relationships. We give friends leeway because of the trust and communication between us, so a misunderstanding does not tend to escalate.

New Capabilities

Beyond caring, there are several capabilities that ensure we do not default to throwing others under the bus (in other words we take responsibility). The capabilities include personal accountabilitycommunication, lateral thinking (problem to solution), developing rapport, and influencing

Communication

One of, in not the most, important area to improve is communication. It is critical to set expectations, hold accountable and provide regular feedback. Communication is the grease that fixes the squeaky wheel (ie: the person blaming) by shining a light on it. Tactics to game the outcome fail, and transparency takes hold for the individual, or team if the issue is culture-wide. 

So, to end the tendency to throw others under the bus, we need to:

  1. Deal with the underlying root cause(s) within the individual or the company’s system
  2. Focus on sharpening strategic skills of accountability, communication, lateral thinking, rapport, and influence
  3. Communicate regularly and meaningfully to promote transparency and accountability

Final Thoughts

In our example, a good outcome follows. The CFO worked with the lender to address the issue, which the COO then dutifully executed on. The arm’s length relationship makes establishing trust in this situation particularly challenging – a good BLOG topic for another day!

Leadership, in this context, means meaningful and deep engagement to improve both self-performance and that of the teams around us. Our relationships and attitudes ultimately determine our success!

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on how you manage yourself, or other individuals, when you see someone blaming others for their mistakes. 

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Author unknown

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