Coming out of a contentious meeting where one executive’s proposal was discussed and rejected, I overheard the dejected leader chastise a colleague for “throwing me under the bus” for disagreeing with a proposal. I’ve heard this expression for years, and have never really understood where this particular idiom came from. Is there really a long-standing habit of physically shoving people underneath urban transportation? Is this so commonplace that it has become a cliché? If the metaphorical tram is moving, this would obviously be fatal, which, I suppose, is what the victim of some public criticism feels he or she is experiencing.

And research reveals that there is a far greater threat to pedestrians than busses: light trucks and passenger cars account for far more deaths than do busses (84% of vehicle-pedestrian incidents fell into these categories), but “you threw me under a light truck” just doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.

According to my vast research (20 minutes on Google and Youtube) the phrase really connotes betrayal by a friend or colleague, especially in a public way. I suppose it’s because it is easiest to push someone under a bus if you’re walking alongside them and surprise them at the optimum moment.

But why? Why is criticism or even disagreeing, especially in public, so egregious as to be compared to violent homicide? Why do people feel betrayed or victimized simply because a friend or colleague doesn’t support every idea they have? Perhaps we are being a bit too sensitive here.

It may be because it is rare for people to give truly candid feedback to each other. When you aren’t used to hearing criticism, it can be startling, and it’s easy to become defensive.

Of course it matters how it is delivered. If the feedback is delivered in a mean-spirited way then, sure, it can feel like you’re being run over. But that’s not usually how it’s meant, especially between teammates. If everyone is vested in the success of the organization and pointed in the same direction, critical, candid feedback should be welcome.

I think we waste a lot of time being sensitive about how people might take our disagreement.

This is a characteristic of the corporate culture of your organization: whether people value candid feedback, or whether every disagreement feels like attempted manslaughter.

And this doesn’t just happen in the conference room. This lack of candidness often exists between managers and employees. Many managers are unwilling to give their employees the tough feedback they need to improve. When leaders fail to deal with employee shortfalls in a straightforward manner they put undue pressure on themselves and their teams to cover that shortfall. And, just as bad, they cheat the employee out of the chance to improve.

Making up for an underperforming employee is exhausting, and unfair. But without candid feedback they are unlikely to change. Sugercoating things does your employee and their teammates a disservice.

Of course, delivery matters. Employee feedback needs to be focused on behavior, not characteristics, and project critiques need to focus on specific aspects that need improvement, not on the team members’ personal shortfalls.

But creating a corporate culture that values candid feedback isn’t easy. Cries of motor-coach homicide will abound as soon as you start trying to provide people with pointed, useful feedback. Here are a few pointers that may help:

  1. Model Honesty. The first thing leaders need to do to shape that culture is to model honesty. Leaders must be candid with each other publicly, and must give their subordinates extremely honest feedback.
  2. Acknowledge feedback. Sometimes you have to realize that your idea isn’t always the best one, even if you are the highest paid person in the room. You have to encourage people to candidly disagree with you, and must acknowledge when someone has provided useful feedback, even if you don’t like it. Model that and it will become contagious. Never kill the messenger (with or without a bus). The first time you respond poorly to criticism is the last time you’ll get honest feedback.
  3. Don’t over-referee office friction. When someone complains about an employee, ask them, “What did she say when you told her that?”

    So many times, they will respond, “oh I couldn’t say that to her!”

    Why not? If you want behavior to change you must be honest about it.

  1. Work on delivery. It’s easy to sound rude when you are being candidly critical (this is one of my weaknesses… ask anyone who has worked with me or been on a team I’ve coached). Figure out a way to be candid without crushing people.
  2. Know when to keep candid feedback private. We should feel free to criticize ideas publicly, but if criticizing someone’s behavior, keep that behind closed doors. There is a big difference between being pointedly candid and embarrassing people.

Too often we waste tremendous energy and resources doing the wrong things or doing things the wrong way simply because we lack the intestinal fortitude to be candid with each other. We too often don’t want to be accused of “throwing people under the bus” so we refrain from saying what needs to be said.

Healthy corporate cultures, like good relationships, thrive on trust. Trust comes from honesty.

Leaders are responsible for their organization’s culture. If you have a benignly polite culture and want to get better results, try modeling candidness. Don’t accept that being honest with people is akin to vehicular manslaughter. Being honest with each other doesn’t create victims, it creates trust, and trust builds stronger organizations.

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