One of my pet peeves is the misuse of the term, “You threw me under the bus!” This accusation has become so common that people use related phrases and everyone knows what they mean, such as, “I can smell the bus exhaust from our meeting with Linda this morning” or “I’ve still got tire tracks on my back thanks to Jim.”
The true definition of getting “thrown under the bus” is being blamed for something you did not do. This has happened to all of us, particularly if we had older siblings, who universally blame their younger brothers and sisters in order to escape a parent’s wrath. Or perhaps you are the older sibling and you owe someone in your family a long-overdue apology. Just saying.
Times have changed. People now use the term, “I was thrown under the bus,” even when they are 100 percent guilty of whatever they are accused of and what they were actually facing was accountability. Accountability is when you know the bus is coming but you dive in front of it anyway. You didn’t get hit by a bus, you got bus-ted and you deserved it.
Whatever the frequency of under-the-bus-throwing in business, I doubt it’s matched by accountability-holding. In my experience, many managers aren’t that great at holding people accountable, but then again, lots of managers don’t set goals for their employees. It’s difficult to determine whether or not someone hits unspoken goals but if your manager is held accountable by his boss, he’s more likely to turn around and throw you under the bus even though the miss wasn’t your mistake. That’s the mass-transitive property of accountability.
By the way, getting “thrown under the bus” is not related to the term “gets hit by a bus,” which we use to refer to someone who might go away suddenly, (e.g., “Can someone write down Ann’s process for updating our blog in case she gets hit by a bus?”) Buses now get blamed for lots of bad stuff in corporate America, which is obviously a case of throwing buses under the bus. Perhaps that’s why we refuse to fund public transportation in the U.S.
I’ve been a professional manager (meaning people pay me to manage other people; yes – it surprises me too) for 30 years. During that time, I’ve tried very hard to set clear goals, learn to accept accountability because I screw things up sometimes (no – that doesn’t surprise me, either) and work really hard not to throw anyone under a bus or other moving vehicle. There are worse things than getting reprimanded by your boss and even getting fired isn’t the end of the world. Don’t ask me how I know.
Great leaders not only accept responsibility for their mistakes – they also realize they are responsible for the actions, decisions and performances of the people who report in to them. A long time ago, I was running the marketing department for a major distributor and a contract designer we hired inserted a bunch of profanity into a product description in our annual catalog. We caught it just in time but my boss told me that if the catalog had made it into the marketplace, he’d have fired me.
I replied, “That would have been the right thing to do,” and I meant it. Then I held the contractor accountable by firing him. What I really wanted to do was run over him with a bus.
Accountability is a good thing but it’s only possible if you set clear goals, communicate with your team and never, ever, blame them for mistakes that you or someone else made.
I would like to advocate for clear goals, fair accountability and no more throwing people under the bus. I’d also like to suggest that before people claim to have been thrown under the bus, they carefully consider if they really just got what was coming to them. There’s nothing wrong with taking responsibility for your own mistakes. As Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” It will also help with the long-overdue rehabilitation of the image of buses. They have suffered long enough.