Many of us have witnessed a colleague being questioned for not achieving an outcome, and when asked for the reason behind the failure, they lay blame at the foot of another individual.
They do not take responsibility for their actions and always seem to have an excuse for why they were not able to complete the task successfully.
Instead, they point fingers away from themselves towards other people, processes, clients, systems, and circumstances…anything but themselves.
This is an unfortunately common tactic referred to as, “throwing someone under the bus”. They are looking to deflect blame and responsibility of the failed outcome onto someone else.
It is the corporate equivalent of a shield protecting the warrior from an onslaught of arrows.
It can be easy to look negatively at this particular reaction and think poorly of the person using this tactic. But lets look at the root cause of this type of behaviour.
Why Throw Someone Under The Bus?
When someone throws another individual ‘under the bus’ this is often a symptom of fear, lack of confidence in their position with the team/company, or an underlying feeling of uncertainty.
Individuals that act with self-preservation in mind, typically work in an environment that does not allow room for missteps, has ineffective communication practices, and often times have a damaged relationship with their colleagues or manager.
Consider Cynthia, a mid-level manager who feels the continual pressures of her direct reports, as well as upper management. Any time a project is handed to her, the expectation to execute perfectly is strongly implied, and any barriers to success are met with negativity and harsh criticism.
Cynthia has learned to maneuver the politics of the office by deflecting responsibility for failed outcomes away from herself, as a means of preserving her role within the company.
Self-preservation is a learned behaviour based on what is perceived, witnessed or straight-out communicated within the work environment.
If team members are not given the opportunity to fail during an attempt to execute, and then learn from their mistakes, they will establish tactics and habits that are geared more towards CYA (Cover Your Ass) antics as opposed to uncovering genuine learning opportunities.
Like it or not, as leaders, we can not lay all of the blame on those that practice these types of behaviours. Employees can sense what is going on in the underlying culture of an organization.
If the perceived need for self-preservation is present, then you don’t necessarily have an individual behavioural problem, but a cultural problem.
What Leadership Has to Do With It
Leaders can make the difference in this type of behaviour by changing the way the culture and team dynamics are established and maintained. And, as you may have guessed, it all starts from the top.
As leaders, we need to communicate frequently and continually that open, honest, and direct communication is the key to growth. If employees are afraid to come forward with why something failed, then they are not going to come forward at all.
Imagine that each time you took the initiative to test out a new theory or strategy that, if it fails, you were under threat of serious reprimand, demotion, or dismissal. How many times do you think you would try and test out new ideas, processes, or strategies?
My guess is not too many.
The worst part is when people feel that they need to invest more in protecting themselves, as opposed to growing the business, it not only harms business relationships but everyone will have lost valuable information that can be applied to future strategies.
So what can leaders do to ensure that their teams remain innovative, take chances, and don’t finger-point? I invite you to consider a few examples below.
- Lead by example
In many circumstances in life we take cues from individuals whom are in charge, leading the way, or responsible for outcomes. In a work environment this means management and, like it or not, people are looking to you to set an example.
It is crucial that you lead by example and set the tone for what is acceptable and what is not.
Leading by example means taking immediate responsibility for any miscommunication, incorrect information, and poor or rushed judgement.
It means being transparent when a hypothesis turns out to be proven wrong, then using that opportunity for learning and growth. It also means encouraging employees and colleagues to speak openly about failed strategies, missed deadlines, and poorly executed strategies so that they can be learned from, not penalized.
2. Reward Honesty
It takes time to foster an environment where individuals feel comfortable enough to trust that they can be vulnerable. When we take risks and outcomes do not fall in our favour, the lack of success can leave an individual feeling like they are in danger — unless they have a leader that encourages them to learn from their mistakes.
By rewarding those that come forward with an autopsy of what went right and what went wrong, leaders can set the tone for what types of behaviours are acceptable within the organization.
Congratulating individuals for identifying the possibilities, taking the risk, and providing feedback on why it didn’t work, out is a great way to highlight the learning opportunities within the experience.
Treating employees with respect and encouraging them to participate in the learning process fosters an environment where laying blame becomes unwelcome and discouraged.
The cues and behaviours exhibited by strong leaders are the key to building a culture of ownership, transparency and growth. So be an effective leader and lead by example, reward honesty and make it clear that the bus doesn’t stop at your door any longer.