The Really Big Bus

“Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something that he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide,” Belichick said, “I can tell you that in my entire coaching career, I have never talked to any player (or) staff member, about football air pressure.” This is a quote from a press conference held by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick during which he spoke about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the infamous “Deflategate” case. What just happened here?

This was a classic case of someone being “thrown under the bus.” In this instance it was very public and left some massive tire marks. In an entrepreneurial environment this is pure poison. Throwing someone under the bus destroys team spirit and leads to major internal trust issues.

As children, we had a tendency to point fingers at others rather than accept responsibility for ourselves. The blame game was in full swing and a fairly normal aspect of childhood. We should have seen its destructive nature then and refrained from carrying it into adulthood. How often have you heard something like this? “Our revenues are down because the salespeople didn’t move enough of our product.” Or, “The contract was late being delivered to the client because my administrative assistant was sick.” And how about, “I’m sorry we delivered poor customer service – I’m going to fire John Doe whom you spoke to on the phone.”

Wow! These are some heavy duty statements and perfect examples of what it looks like to be thrown under the bus. They are also perfect examples of scapegoating, finger-pointing, excuse-making and general lack of accountability. At all costs the speaker wants to distance himself from what went wrong. It’s pretty obvious that this is not enlightened leadership. How simple it would be to change a few words and ultimately the whole message. Consider these alternatives. “We’re pulling the whole team together to identify a new strategy to increase revenues.” No one is being blamed here and a positive step has been identified. “I’m very sorry the contract was late. Please let us know if there is anything that needs to be changed.” The client doesn’t really care why the contract was late. Thus, a heartfelt apology is all that needs to be said. “I’m sorry our customer service wasn’t satisfactory. What else can we do to make this right?” Again, a straightforward apology and no one is blamed.

Teams become strong when each member knows everyone has his or her back. What if clearly someone screwed up and makes the whole team look bad? Shouldn’t that person be held accountable? This is a fair question and the answer is yes to accountability. But as leaders, we should never publicly do so – to a customer or in front of the whole team. Individual issues should be dealt with individually. We accomplish nothing when we embarrass a member of a team in front of others. Not only does that team member resent such treatment, but the other members become afraid of making mistakes for fear of being called out in similar fashion. Rather than move forward with positive energy, the team then becomes tentative and apprehensive.

A respected leader will always take one for the team. He or she understands that an individual failure is a team failure. The failure could have happened because the team member didn’t have the training or the resources to succeed. It could have happened because systems and processes within the organization were broken. Perhaps there was a lack of communication or understanding. And it’s possible that the organization failed because it placed a bet on a team member that really wasn’t qualified for the job. Rarely is failure isolated to a specific individual. Recognizing this, the strong leader will resist the temptation to single out an individual and instead accept responsibility on behalf of the entire enterprise.

Being thrown under the bus is humiliating and painful. People want to work within companies that create a climate of trust and avoid blaming individuals for problems when they arise.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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