Workplace Wisdom

How to Get Out from “Under the Bus”

“They threw me under the bus” is probably the most common expression of complaint among employees who see themselves as the victims of intra- or inter-team sniping. Whenever I hear it, I picture tire tracks — big, wide ones — across somebody’s back.

The phrase smacks of unfairness, at a minimum, and, at its worst, of collusion, witch-hunting, and victimization. People tend to say they’ve been thrown under the bus when they want to convey:

  • Anger about feeling attacked during a presentation;
  • Confusion or distress that people who previously pledged support didn’t back them up in a larger discussion; or
  • Frustration about being blamed for something that wasn’t their fault.

People who feel this way sometimes cast themselves in the role of scapegoat or sacrificial lamb, and say things like: “They threw me under the bus because they didn’t want to deal with the real issue.” Or: “They threw me under the bus because they weren’t willing to tell the boss to his face that his idea was stupid.”

Taking a Better Route

“They threw me under the bus” is an evocative blanket statement — an excuse that everyone can relate to for why things didn’t work out. It lets the complainer personalize the issue, but without taking responsibility for it, by claiming that others behaved badly and in a directly attacking or demeaning way. Although the expression is clearly a cry for support, sympathy, and redress, it never seems to shift a negative situation forward. Instead, it just reinforces how victimized someone feels.

It’s a lot easier to say, “They tried to hurt me” than: “It didn’t go so well, and I need to figure out how to recover and rebut the objection or how not to trigger that concern again. Maybe I didn’t do all my due diligence or account for something they cared about.”

I’ve heard about employees being “thrown under the bus” in so many different organizations, in response to widely ranging circumstances by employees at all levels, that I’ve begun to ask the people who use it what they really mean.  When people describe what actually happened, they can take a first step toward addressing their hurt and resentment instead of merely labeling colleagues as unhelpful, disloyal, or downright mean.

Bus Stop

If you’d like to review the “traffic accidents” within your organization, you can include these questions when you “interview the victim:”

  • If they really challenged you during the presentation, can you tell whether it was about your proposal, position, or style? Or was it about your findings, methodology, or behavior?
  • Could you have built a more effective case, either in your preparation or your delivery? Or should you have built more support for it before you went into the meeting?
  • Could the fact that your colleagues disagreed with your position when you weren’t there to defend it mean that they’re actually reluctant to discuss their real views with you?

Traffic Control

Some colleagues really do behave badly. They may turn work problems personal if they’re not skillful enough to make their own positive points or they don’t know how else to get the outcome they want.

But much more often, poorly conducted disagreements or conflicts are an expression of negative feelings around an actual work problem or discrepancy in information or coordination. The discussions become personal because it’s easier to focus on a stylistic or behavioral problem and talk about people than it is to resolve underlying structural or organizational constraints.

Most problems occur with the work itself, not necessarily with any individual. But if colleagues are indeed being unpleasantly personal — not just disagreeing with someone’s premise or proposal — it could mean that they’ve been unhappy or uncomfortable with something about this person for a while, but they haven’t known how to say so.

Either way, climbing out from “under the bus” requires both self-examination and a willingness to ask the presumed attackers/challengers who “drove over” you what their true intentions were. Whatever their answers are, you need to take their feedback seriously. The situation may benefit from more prep, a completely different approach, or even an attitude adjustment.

Whether you feel like you’re under the bus or driving it, some of these posts might help you avoid or reduce further “driving accidents” among colleagues:

Onward and upward,

LK

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