Welcome everyone! This article was inspired by a question posted on a Project Management Community Forum that I follow on LinkedIn. This is a wonderful question on many levels.
Here is the question:
Does falling on your sword for a team fiasco help your leadership, or is “throwing them under the bus” the right thing to do?
My father always taught us that praise is infinitely divisible, but that blame is only divisible by 1. A good PM always gives credit to the team for success and feels accountable for the team’s failure, but is “throwing them under the bus” ever the right thing to do?
First I’d like to clarify a few definitions I use:
- Throwing someone under the bus: blaming someone else for my mistake
- Taking credit: accepting or claiming credit for a work product or output
Throwing Someone Under The Bus
It’s never a good idea as an individual or as a lead to blame others for my shortcomings. To do so shows a negative character attribute. In the past when I’ve done this it was as a result of a low-self esteem.
The very premise of the question deserves to be questioned. The underlying premise is that blame is to be assigned. Here is one of what I believe are the greatest of human tragedies — to blame, take blame, or be blamed.
A Tony Robbins says, “There is no failure, only outcomes.” If there can be no failure, then there is no need to blame. Blame is born of fear and anger — fear that we are not enough, and anger that because of someone else, people may think we are not enough.
Blame is effectively anger turned outward onto others, or inward on ourselves. It serves no purpose except as a method to control others and let ourselves out of a trap of guilt or shame.
Successful blame has the side effect that it stops all positive action for change. Once someone accepts blame, or the group assigns the blame, then all need for change to the system is released. No one besides the guilty party need to do anything differently.
So the very idea that a PM must accept or reject blame arises because the system the larger organization is operating under is broken and dysfunctional. All conversations should be about change and positive movement in the future.
As I hopefully established earlier with you, the idea of failure is an invented concept. A belief that outcomes come as either success of failure is born out of a need to prove, or have proven to us, that outcomes are good.
If instead we establish a clear criteria for the evaluation of outcomes, we can find that every situation has awesome outcomes and areas where outcomes may be improved to get results that are better for us in the long term. We don’t need to assign blame. Instead we assign actions that need to be taken.
In situations where the outcomes create problems for the team, like using up all the funds given a project without delivery, missing a deadline to a customer with financial consequences to the company, or producing a product that has defects that require more expensive solutions after market launch, the team and company will suffer natural consequences. Even in these extreme cases the assignment of blame and declaration of failure are really inconsequential.
If we eliminate blame and failure from our vocabulary, then any conversation about outcomes must have clearly established criteria and analyses. In this case everyone involved, including the project manager, should be focused on determining the root cause where outcomes were not reaching the levels needed and find solutions to those issues. Outcomes like cost overruns, inadequate product quality, or too much overtime by staff all deserve to be assessed and determinations made about how they can be improved.
Rather, those outcomes can be considered positive or negative; the project manager cannot take responsibility for them in either case. They can neither take the blame nor the credit. In a system free of blame and failure, the team, including the project manager, can only focus on assessment, evaluation, and solutions. There is no one to be a victim to.
I hope you are having an excellent day.