Recently I’ve had a few conversations with a childhood friend who I will refer to as Amanda for this post. Amanda shared some troubling events that she has been experiencing in the work place. Not only does she have little support from her manager, she feels this person has twice thrown her under the bus, and would not hesitate to do so again. She is doubtful that the working relationship between the two of them will improve anytime soon, and she is considering other options.
First, let’s revisit the phrase thrown under the bus. Some of you may be very familiar with it, however, others may not. Here’s a simple definition: to sacrifice another person for personal gain. A more detailed definition that is fitting and appropriate is from the Urban Dictionary:
Physically throwing a person under a big, smelly city bus is the perfect metaphor for the act of positioning someone to be ground up under the wheels of the ever rolling omnibus of society in your stead. The bus carries people. The people’s weight is what crushes the victim. This setting up of a patsy has an earlier, more agrarian beginning in “throwing him to the wolves.” Some-one is going down, it’s not going to be you, so you select a candidate to feed into the system.
I asked Amanda if she recalled any triggers in the work environment or any changes in her manager’s behavior before either of the negative encounters occurred? As an example, does it happen around the time the monthly report is due? Or when an unannounced inspection occurs?
Being thrown under the bus is no laughing matter. When it is your immediate manager or supervisor who is inflicting this pain, add insult to injury. Unfortunately, it happens a lot, and it happens more than some will ever acknowledge. Why is that?
Before we get to some of the reasons why some folks have attempted to flatten or ground up others under the omnibus of the workplace or other venues, I want to share some information from a post by Liz Ryan, a human resources expert and contributor to Forbes Magazine. In her post, I Trusted My Manager Completely — Until He Stabbed Me In The Back, she shared a letter from a reader who had recently been thrown under the bus by her manager. The writer had considered her manager to be fair and trustworthy until she discovered that he did not support her being promoted to another department.
As Jenny the employee put it, “Tom (her boss) doesn’t want me to get promoted, so he threw me under the bus.” Here’s what happened:
Sarah (Tom’s boss): Jenny is doing a great job. I could use someone with her skills in National Accounts. Could you live without her?
Tom: No way — she’s the only person who knows our accounts and their histories.
Sarah: Can you train someone else to do Jenny’s job within the next two to three months so I can promote her into National Accounts?
Tom: Listen Sarah, Jenny is not as great an employee as you think she is. She has a lot of training needs. You should promote someone else.
On reading the above my first question about Jenny is this: Is she a valued and knowledgeable employee?, or is she inept and in need of lots of training? She either knows what she is doing or she doesn’t, however, it is difficult to know from her manager’s comments.
Regrettably, some supervisors throw employees under the bus to reduce their chances of getting a promotion or other opportunity. Truth be told, some co-workers are also guilty of this act. All too often, the behavior doesn’t surface until an important opportunity arises. When that happens, expect professional jealousies to ensue and brace for a round or two or three of whining and complaining.
Like Jenny’s manager above, good news of a promotion or plum project assignment for an outstanding member of one’s team may be viewed more as a burden than a reason to celebrate. “There’s no one to replace this individual.”, or “No one can do the work that they are doing.” they often say. If their pleas fall on deaf ears, often the next move is to throw shade on the employee or attempt to hide his/her talent and abilities from others who may be trying to steal this employee from their area. The manager often feels that this is unfair to him and his team!
Jenny’s manager has succumbed to blocking to keep her in her current assignment. Blocking techniques are not new and are too numerous to count. In fact, like other less than professional behavior, they are as old as the hills. Here are some well-known blocking techniques that supervisors and sometimes co-workers use to hide talent in organizations:
1. Fail to communicate opportunities, career or otherwise, with employee(s).
Many organizations have job posting sites that list new position openings both for internal employees and external candidates. While these sites work well most of the time, when the need to fill a position is critical and urgent, the process may take a different approach and information can be communicated verbally or in writing to managers with instructions to notify their employees of a potential assignment.
And while new positions and plum assignments are two reasons some folks have been thrown under the bus, it could be other items or activities such as tickets to a major sporting event, special leadership training, or an opportunity to spend some time with the CEO or a senior vice president. Those persons who feel they have more to lose than gain by communicating this information to any employee in their group or team simply don’t.
2. Make decisions for the employee(s).
Then there is the supervisor or manager who relies heavily on the work of one or more subordinates to get the job done, yet he/she believes that they can only make important decisions that impact their work area or the company, but not important decisions for themselves. If you hear, “I talked to him/her and they said they are happy with the work that they are doing and not interested in a new assignment at this time.”, trust but confirm that this is the case.
Insecurities and professional jealousies arise in the work place at all levels including the managerial ranks, and especially first level supervisors. Here are two examples of conversations that these supervisors are having with themselves when an opportunity surfaces for one of their employees:
“I didn’t get a promotion until X years with company or Y years of age, why should he/she move sooner?”
“This employee is very good and I don’t want to have to compete with him or her for my next promotion.”
Speaking on behalf of the employee about her or his preference is the manager’s way of saying, “I know what is best for me and my employee.”
3. Refuse to release the employee for a new assignment.
Paraphrasing Liz Ryan, “Your boss loves you as an underling, but isn’t ready to see you as a person closer to his/her own level.” Regrettably this also applies to some co-workers. When employees are all underlings or in the trenches, they are all at the power dead-even level. However, as soon as an opportunity is presented for one person in the team or group, attitudes can change like a tidal wave. Needless to say, everyone is not going to be happy that you are being considered for a promotion or special assignment.
I can’t think of too many supervisors or managers that I have met who don’t appreciate an employee that knows his or her job. If this is your go to person to get an answer or to handle a difficult assignment, the thought of losing this employee – this human asset and resource – can be very troubling for some managers. However, blocking a person’s career path is not the answer.
While some managers would never think of blocking a career opportunity for an employee, others wouldn’t give it a second thought. They quickly mark their territory and begin to circle the wagons giving off warning signals to those who come too close. This is a form of hiding talent and every organization should strongly discourage this practice. Regrettably, the culture in too many organizations and companies supports this behavior.
Some of these folks can never see anyone who has been assigned to them ever leaving their group or team unless they die or leave the company. This is a sad reality. I once had a supervisor tell me that I could get promoted after he got promoted. Really? Who made up that rule? In other words, if he didn’t get promoted for the next five or 10 years, I was supposed to wait until he vacated that position to seek a promotional opportunity in the company, even when I was ready to be promoted now, and opportunities were surfacing in other areas of the firm.
One may hear that the person is too valuable to replace. If they walk out the door today what will happen? The organization will find his/her replacement. When I hear “no one else can do the work that this employee is doing,” that tells me two things:
a. More than likely the employee in this position was a go-getter and figured out on her own how to do her job, and/or
b. The work that the employee is doing is getting some great recognition and comments from the upper ranks.
Here’s another interesting conundrum to add to this mix: When someone suggest that the employee trains his/her replacement, the manager balks at the thought of this happening. Why? The primary reason is that the manager feels that he will be seen as not knowing as much as the employee that he is about to lose, both by his team and possibly other managers. And yes, that certainly qualifies for an eyeball roll by the readers of this post. It also reflects a high level of insecurity on the part of the manager. So the plan is to maintain the status quo until he gets promoted, retires, leaves the company, or dies.
Combatting Blocking Techniques
Blocking techniques are often deep-seated, have a long history, and reflect the culture of an organization. One of the most effective solutions to combat blockers is open and above-the-radar communication.
As I shared earlier, many organizations have electronic job boards and social media where they post open positions. However, if there is a question that some employees or groups are being left out due to internal communication problems, a voice message, email, text, and/or IM notification to all employees or those at a certain level solves the problem. In this way, there is no reason to shoot those messengers who refuse to relay the message.
Supervisors and managers who are resistant to promotional opportunities for their employee(s), even when a transition period and training have been offered, are a bigger problem and one that the management team needs to address. This is not the message that any company wants to send to an employee, nor should the company tolerate an uncooperative manager or supervisor. This obstinate and uncooperative behavior may be a symptom of a larger problem, or one that has not yet surfaced.
In closing, blocking techniques happen a lot in business & STEM, but they are not limited to any one sector or industry. I can’t think of more than one or two persons that I have met throughout my career who did not want to be friends with her boss and/or at least wanted to be on good terms with their immediate supervisor. The reality is that this does not always happen.
The good news (to paraphrase Liz Ryan again) is that you don’t need your boss on your side to have a brilliant and wonderful career!
I Trusted My Manager Completely — Until He Stabbed Me In The Back, by Liz Ryan, Forbes Contributor, May 4, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2017/05/04/i-trusted-my-manager-completely-until-he-stabbed-me-in-the-back/#7a9d50097fb8