If you’ve worked long enough, then you probably know what it’s like to be thrown under the bus. This idiomatic phrase means to have your reputation deliberately sacrificed by another for that person’s personal gain or advancement.
What do you do when you are caught in the middle of this situation? And how do you recuperate from such a betrayal?
Cameron was a rising star whose contributions were always appreciated on any team. Newly promoted to Executive Vice President, he was assigned to expand the company’s reach into all 50 states.
One particular project involved another executive, Sandra, who had been a contender for Cameron’s position. She was cordial as they worked together on this, but when the time came to report formally to the board on how the initiative was shaping up, she blamed her lack of progress on Cameron.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been able to move forward as I would have liked,” said Sandra. “It’s been a little difficult to get the information I need to do my part since Cameron has been consumed with all of his other projects. You’ve been hard to chase down, my friend,” she gave Cameron a rather condescending smile. “We’ll just have to try harder.”
Cameron told me later that the top of his head become so hot when this happened that it felt like it was going to explode. He looked at Sandra in disbelief. He had been accessible at every turn, and had told Sandra how to reach him if she couldn’t find him. And this? This was clearly a move to discredit him as leader in his new position.
What would you do if a colleague threw you under the bus?
Here’s what Cameron did – and what I want to share with you, so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you can recoup quickly and rise victorious.
1. Pre-empt any barreling bus by making sure you already have a solid reputation.
The best way to avoid people doubting your ability to do the work is to establish a strong track record through your integrity (your approach) and your ability to execute and deliver (your competence). When you have this background experience, people will remember when an isolated incident questions your leadership.
Cameron enjoyed a stellar reputation with others and so those in the room witnessing Sandra’s blame quickly questioned her motives – not Cameron’s abilities.
2. Take a short walk before you decide how to handle this.
Before you decide how you want to address being run over, take a short walk. Get outside, breathe, move around. It’s important to take a pause as you process what just happened and what you want to do to remedy it. On mental, emotional, and physical levels, this gives you the spaciousness of time to cool down and think through a best response.
Cameron got out the door as soon as the presentation was over and took a good 10-minute walk before he calmed down enough to process. Once he got his emotions under control, he was able to think through next best steps for salvaging his reputation with the board.
3. Confront for the record.
Meet with the person who just threw you under the bus.
Cameron was direct and thoughtful. “Sandra,” he began. “I was surprised in there to hear that you didn’t get the time you needed with me in order to meet the deadline. I must apologize if I appeared inaccessible. Can you share more?”
Sandra, of course, was hedging, hemming, and hawing. She knew she was caught, but thought she could wiggle out. “Well, Cameron,” she answered, “whenever I would walk past your door to check in, you seemed very busy…on a conference call, in the middle of a meeting…it was just very awkward.”
Cameron didn’t back down, but created a net for the future. “Sandra, in future, if I seem caught up and don’t notice you, it will be helpful if you shoot me an e-mail or call to schedule time. This project is high priority – and I will always make time for you as a valued team member to support you in your part.”
Sandra was caught and she knew it. The excuse was lame – but she was proud. She agreed that next time, she would make an appointment. “And one more thing, Sandra – if you aren’t not getting the answers or resources you need from me, I hope you will tell me so that I can rectify that. Will that work for you?” Sandra was officially put on notice – no more blame game.
4. Restore your reputation through a third-party champion.
At times like these, you know that anything you say publicly will simply sound like defensive excuses. In this case, you need a champion to boost your good name. Pick a trusted colleague who has influence or “power clout” with those who witnessed the crash and share what has happened. Allow them, over the next few days, to do some subtle, positive PR on your behalf when you aren’t in the room.
Having someone else speak highly of you and your abilities in this way is powerful. You take the high road; your colleague reinforces how great you are doing and why you are definitely the right person in the right seat – and you can relax.
If you have ever been thrown under the bus, then you know how devastating it is.
Be sure you are a person who never resorts to that – and commit to being a champion for others.
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.