Essay

Throwing People Under the Bus… 5 Tips to a Better Office Culture

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.

Articles, Essay

Now Hiring: Interview Principles to make Better Selections

Hire the Best Person for the job, not just the best interviewer!

In a large, risk-averse bureaucracy there is a tendency to create processes that try to minimize risk. In our hiring process we have reduced the job interview to one that values fairness over effectiveness. Every applicant is asked the exact same questions in the exact same order. Followup questions are verboten. If the applicant doesn’t understand the question, the interviewer repeats the question verbatim.

It’s as if we don’t really want them to work here.

Our most valuable resource is high quality people. To continue our success, we must continue to find, recruit, and hire the best possible people to do the essential work we do. It is inconsistent with this goal to conduct interviews in a manner that doesn’t contribute to it. Too often, our interviews are cold, uninviting, and exhausting. We must change that.

The following principles and guidelines are helpful steps in the right direction. Continue reading

Essay

Veteran’s Day Speech 2018

I had the honor of addressing a crowd of veterans and our community to commemorate the 100th anniversary of signing of the Armistice ending World War I. The text is printed below.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for coming out today to honor those men and women, past and present who have served in our Armed Forces.

This occasion is a special one, as it was a hundred years ago today that our forces in the Army Expeditionary Force serving in France heard the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We are a long ways from the days of horse drawn artillery and biplanes, and it is hard to imagine the sacrifices our doughboys made during that terrible conflict, or the exhilaration, relief and excitement those men and women felt just a hundred years ago today.

A year later, on November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end to World War I. In this proclamation, President Wilson spoke about this Nation’s contribution to the conflict in Europe. “…We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with – solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory…”

That’s tough to follow

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Stories

Following Superman: Doing it all yourself doesn’t actually help

A few years ago I succeeded Superman in a job. As you can imagine following the Man of Steel was really hard.

I took over as the chief of staff for an engineer unit, and my predecessor had done an amazing job at running the unit. He knew everything about the maintenance, logistics, personnel, and administrative systems, and he knew how to leverage those systems to keep the organization going. It was, frankly, intimidating thinking about how much I had to learn.

Fortunately, I have a staff around me that will help me figure it all out, right?

Well, sort of… there were people assigned as staff officers with responsibility for those areas. That’s not the same thing as having a fully functional staff.

One of the first meetings I got to attend in my new position was the budget meeting at our higher headquarters. I called in the budget officer and asked him to bring me the books so we could review them before the meeting.

The budget officer told me he’d be happy to come over but that he didn’t have the books. “They’re in your office. Your predecessor did the budget himself.”

Hmmmm….

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Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

This starts by knowing how the game is played and knowing all of the rules, both written and unwritten, and then either exploiting or breaking them.

 

I love practicing jujitsu. It is a great art and sport, and helps build flexibility, strength, endurance, and confidence. The practice of jujitsu is a journey, and very few who study the art can claim to master it. I, unfortunately am in the majority here. As a mere novice in this art I frequently find myself humbled by the speed and skill of others.

One of the people I roll with is a guy named Ben. Ben is a bit of a freak of nature as he is older than me but remains one of the biggest, strongest, fittest people in the academy. I’m probably giving up about 30 pounds when I square off with Ben, and despite what TV tells you, strength and size make a difference. The other problem I have with Ben is his jujitsu is also better than mine.

When I roll with Ben I have no illusions that I will tap him out. My goal is to survive the five minutes without getting choked out. Sometimes I make it.

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Essay

Get the Rock out of the Road: Leading Change amidst resistance

As a brand new Lieutenant I was welcomed to my first battalion by a senior lieutenant named Ed who was getting ready to leave the unit. He had been there three years and was headed back to the states to get promoted and go to Captain School. (It wasn’t really called that, but most of my followers aren’t familiar with the Engineer Officer Advanced Course, and I though Captain School sounded cooler).

Ed was full of wisdom. And since he was older and wiser and I was (as my platoon sergeant so eloquently put it) still wet behind the ears, I listened intently.

He offered advice when I attempted to buy an extra large rucksack. “Why do you need that?” To carry more stuff in the field. “We’re a mechanized unit. You have a vehicle for that.” I know, but we may need to dismount and walk a ways. “If you walk more than 300 yards you should fire your driver.” Ed was good at pointing out the obvious stuff for me.

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Story

Accepting the Leadership Challenge: the First-Time Supervisor

As a young lieutenant I had the privilege of serving on the operations staff in an Engineering Battalion. It was a great assignment as there were really talented people working really hard to keep the organization running. I learned a tremendous amount in the year I served on staff, and understanding how the higher headquarters ran made me a better leader when I went back down to the line.

One of the guys I got to know on staff was a Captain named John. He was one of those all-around great guys that didn’t hold his rank over us junior officers.  He essentially treated us as equals on staff and was a pleasure to be around.

And then something changed. John was selected to go to a line unit and take command.

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