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Thought Thursdays
Leading yourself when you’re thrown under the bus

It is very painful to be thrown under the bus. Don't stay there too long! Courageously dust yourself off and lean into this difficult experience, as there are valuable lessons to glean about yourself, your colleagues and your work culture.

Why did this happen and what does this behaviour stem from? There may be several reasons why this happens but, to simplify the matter, the reasons can be listed under two headings: poor communication and poor motives.

When a colleague resorts to throwing fellow team mates under the bus, this may reveal that there is insufficient communication in that workplace with respect to expectations, deadlines, roles, responsibilities and where accountability ultimately lies. This can be the unfortunate way in which a colleague expresses frustration, gives feedback and apportions blame. Or it may originate in the realm of the motives of this colleague. Chances are the colleague could be jealous, insecure or ruthlessly ambitious, and have no problem in climbing to the top over the corpses of others.

What should you do when you are thrown under the bus?

  1. Be proactive. Make a time to meet with your colleague as soon as possible. It is essential that that you adopt an assertive stance, as opposed to an aggressive one. Being proactive can trigger a solution, and demonstrates self-awareness and sensitivity to your working relationships.
  2. Seek clarity. Begin by describing how you felt about the incident, but reach out to ask why your colleague acted in that way. Adopting this tone at the meeting can help clarify whether you are dealing with poor communication or your colleague's motives. If you find it is poor communication and execution, seek feedback and accept your portion of the blame; and state that, going forward, you would much prefer to resolve matters by communicating with each other about the issues at hand.
  3. Be streetwise. If your colleague reacts in a feisty and defensive manner and you sense that the problem is rooted in the realm of motives, you have a much more difficult path to walk. Take time to reflect on the work situation. Does your colleague frequently blame others and throw others under the bus? If possible, seek to move the accountability for the colleague's behaviour to the team or group by being instrumental in helping to set norms of behaviour and communication with regard to deliverables on projects.
  4. Proceed with a new game plan. Whatever the origin of the conflict, move forward enlightened by the experience. Establish and entrench your own brand in the team. Always clarify roles, responsibilities, and time lines. Excel at your job, build relationships, anticipate conflict, resolve problems early, and be ready to advocate for yourself.
  5. Ask yourself a few courageous questions. Do I throw others under the bus? Do I deliver and can people depend on me? Am I proactive? Do I anticipate issues and seek to resolve them? Do I talk directly to people or about people to others?

What should you do if this happens again?

If you have diligently followed the steps above, it becomes a serious matter if it happens again. It is very likely that you have landed in a position where you are now managing your reputation in the organisation. It is essential that you now include your team leader or line manager in finding the solution. When meeting with the person in authority, explain how you have attempted to resolve the matter before escalating it to this level. Seek to remain proactive and solution-oriented.

The workplace is a pressured world where people's stuff is on display. It is realistic to anticipate that there are going to be difficult matters to resolve. Seek to use these tough moments as an opportunity to grow as an individual and understand how to work, survive and thrive in a team context.

Iain Shippey is a part-time faculty member at USB-ED and works at Change Partners, in the field of leadership development, see He has 25 years of experience in the field of leadership and has pioneered and coached start-ups. He is passionate about upskilling people to realise their potential in organisations.

Discover practical tools for teamwork with USB-ED's, Development of Leadership and Team Skills​.
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