Managers are so sloppy when it comes to throwing employees under the bus.
Usually they are so damn angry with the employee that they botch their technique.
They are irrationally rough, their aim is imprecise and messy, and they end up running over the body with such force that it causes more damage to the employee than they intended. But it does seem a relief to have gotten rid of that problem.
Few think about an important follow-through skill: contact with the other employees still on the bus. Just as a baseball pitcher throws a pitch and then needs to be prepared to field the hit, you can’t just throw someone under the bus. You need to be ready for what comes next.
Alas, most get sloppy here. Despite carefully throwing someone under the bus at discrete places or times, or telling employees that the person asked to get off the bus or jumped out of the bus, annoying glitches happen.
Employees on the bus are shaken up when the bus unexpectedly hits and runs over something strange, like their colleague. They get scared and distracted from work; many update their resumes.
Then they see their ex-colleague outside of work, bruised, angry and victimized, stumbling around in disbelief. The water cooler gossip goes wild, people wonder aloud why bosses throw people under the bus, and they secretly fear it could happen to them.
What a mess. Not even HR does a good job cleaning it up. For being so precise with financial spreadsheets and quality standards, why can’t managers be better at throwing employees under the bus?
Why managers throw employees under the bus
First, let’s review reasons why they throw employees under the bus:
1. They are irate that the employees questioned their decisions in a public forum. How dare they! Being humiliated by that subordinate? I’m in charge, goddammit.
2. The employee has been meeting with people in the company to stir up ideas and support around an area that is not one of your five key strategic imperatives. Who gave them permission to do that? Why do they think they are entitled to be creating new strategies outside the standard chain of command? Bet their parents coddled them. Probably were on those sports teams where every kid gets a trophy.
3. Fairly new to the company, the employee just doesn’t get how things work. They seem to miss all the obvious social signals and are getting on people’s nerves. Can’t they see that they’re suppose to informally socialize new ideas before bringing them up in monthly staff meetings? What’s with the talk, talk, talk with the junior people? And strolling into the office at 9:30? Geez. Do I have to explain how everything works around here?
4. They are upsetting your boss and to save face with the big cheese, you need to act decisively and swiftly to eliminate the problem and calm your boss down. Like having an odd-looking mole removed from your face before it develops into full-blown skin cancer. I’m not going to jeopardize my career over someone making waves. She did bring some fresh thinking and energy we could sorely use around here, but after finally making it to senior vice president I’m not going to jeopardize my career.
Those in category #4 are the sloppiest at throwing people under the bus, yet seem to do it more often, too. When insecurities twist a person in knots, they get reckless and irrational. Despite throwing more people under the bus than most managers, they really make a mess of it. Insecurity is a killer.
Improving your skills at throwing someone under the bus
So how to improve your skills in throwing someone under the bus?
Well, before even getting to those skills I’d suggest that first you might want to consider a refresher course in bus driving.
If you get better at focusing on your destination and getting the right people on your bus, you might not have to throw many off the bus. The focus will also help avoid distractions when employees on the bus get rowdy or restless, or someone starts hogging everyone’s attention even when you’ve told him to stay in his seat.
The refresher course will remind you to pay attention when employees on the bus yell at you from the back of the bus. They probably aren’t criticizing your driving. It may be that they see a giant pothole ahead, or know a great short cut, or even want to drive for a while so you can get some rest for what you all know is a challenging journey.
And if your boss calls demanding an explanation about why you’re taking a different route than planned, drivers ed will teach you to stay calm and explain to you boss that several employees know this territory well and saw a better way to get to the destination. Sure he may fume and make threats. But your employees on the bus are with you, ready to fix the flats, pump gas in the rain, figure out ways around detours.
Who is going to go the extra mile for you? Them, or the boss?
NOTE: Please see part two of this post: what to do if you have been thrown under the bus at work. It has some pragmatic ideas on how to recover.