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Passing the Buck in Leadership


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Managing Self
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By Tom Davidson

One of the most common mistakes new managers (and many experienced ones) make is passing the buck.

Why? Because most people quite naturally want to be seen as competent, keep from “getting in trouble,” and avoid losing face. The real trouble comes from the fact that while these are the very results they are trying to avoid, they’re the very outcomes they get when passing the buck.

Fallacy #1 – It wasn’t my fault.
If something goes wrong in your area, on your team or in your department, even if you were not directly to blame for the miscalculation, the bad judgment or the falsification, it’s still your responsibility. Deflecting blame is unbecoming of a leader; accepting it is attractive to followers and builds trust among the stakeholders you should care most about.

Even though you didn’t swing the hammer, strike the wrong computer keys or mislabel the product, it happened on your watch. As the leader, you either created the environment for the error to occur, condoned it by putting your focus on the wrong things, or rewarded it in subtle or explicit ways.

Accept the blame for errors that happen on your watch, and dish out the kudos to others when the good things happen. On balance, you’ll be respected and earn the trust you thought you’d be losing.

Fallacy #2 – It wasn’t my decision.
Until you’re the CEO, at least 75 percent of the decisions you’ll have to execute come from somewhere above your pay grade, and this will inevitably include some you don’t like and many that have poor results or upset others.

The easy – but wrong – way out is to “dis” the decision maker up the chain of command for a boneheaded decision. What’s wrong with that, especially if it’s true?

  1. What’s wrong with this approach is that, unless it’s immoral or illegal, it’s still your job to execute these decisions to the best of your ability. When – not if – word gets back the bonehead that you threw under the bus, your credibility with that person and others will erode before your wondering eyes.
  2. What’s wrong with this approach is that you send a distinct message to countless others that you will throw them to the pavement just as quickly and easily as you did your superior. When you send this message, your followers will flee and your credibility will be fleeting.
  3. What’s wrong with this approach is that it leads to complacency – yours. If you get into this ugly habit, you’ll ditch or dismiss the decisions that are your responsibility to execute and execute well. Next time you think someone made a boneheaded decision that affects you, try making it better and making it work instead of dismissing it to others.

Fallacy #3 – It wasn’t my intention.
Leadership is all about impacts. It doesn’t matter to anyone what your intentions were when things go bad. The only thing that matters is the resulting impact of what you do as a leader. Therefore, claiming that you didn’t intend for something to happen comes across as a weak excuse – because that’s exactly what it is.

For example, Shepard Smith of Fox News called Robin Williams’ suicide this week cowardly. But his apology fell short, to say the least. The rage that his remarks unleashed was for two reasons. First, it was callous about a serious and widespread mental illness called depression. Second, it failed to own up to his word choice, putting the onus of apology on others to choose whether or not they were offended (i.e., if you were offended, I apologize).

It’s safe to say that Mr. Smith did not intend to offend anyone, but his impacts were quite the opposite. Own your words and actions, and don’t hide behind your intentions in this subtle-yet-insidious way of passing the buck.


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