Brandt On Leadership -- Masters Of Disaster

Learn the four essential strategies to shifting the blame for your screw-ups.

If you're in management, you're going to screw up. This is even more likely if you're some highly caffeinated go-getter, trying lots of new ideas; sooner rather than later one of them is going to crash and burn in full view of everyone. Amid the flames and wreckage, you'll find yourself asking one of life's eternal questions:

"How in the hell am I going to explain this?"

How you deal with this disaster may well determine the course of your career and whether you go on to greater things (i.e., gold keys to a washroom with real towels) or lesser things (i.e., sitting in a smudgy cubicle for the rest of your life). Will you face up to your failure and learn from it? Will you become a better person? Or will you shamelessly manipulate the truth to avoid blame altogether, or, even worse, foist the blame off on some unsuspecting colleague?

In short, will you be a loser -- or a player?

Here at the McGillicuddy School for the Advancement of Your Career at Any Cost, research into Blame Avoidance has identified several key strategies -- what we call the Four D's of Career Disaster Survival:

Dispose: Really the preferred choice, as every other option requires more art and deception. Then, too, ask yourself this: If you're trying new things, what business is it of the home office to know every little detail about every little million dollars? What kind of a company is run by beancounters a thousand miles from customers, anyway? Trust us: You'll actually improve corporate efficiency by burying a disaster in some other line on the budget by preventing an expensive, time-wasting investigation into how you could have purchased a new IT system without knowing your RAS from a hole in the ground. In fact, your bosses would actually thank you (if they knew) for saving them from questions about their own oversight of you. Everybody wins!

Deflect: Next best choice, as no screw-up seems quite so bad if it turns out that you were actually just following corporate policy (no matter how perversely interpreted) or, even better, a senior executive's directions (loosely construed, of course). Unfortunately it requires both a good filing system (selective retention of e-mails and memos documenting support for project, equally precise deletion of those criticizing it) and the semantic genius of a constitutional lawyer to twist CEO banalities into enthusiastic endorsement of massively failed investment. Warning: May trigger negative feedback as a "just-following-orders" defense.

Deny: The oldest and, some say, still best response. Style counts for everything as you bald-facedly lie about your knowledge of the boondoggle and everyone associated with it. You have three choices for tone and delivery:

  1. If asked in passing, answer offhandedly: "Never heard of it." Immediately change the subject to sports.
  2. If asked directly, with that little thing your boss does with his eyebrows when he's concerned but still hopeful that he doesn't need to be, answer directly: "I had no direct involvement with that project."
  3. If accused of wasting corporate money or, even worse, embezzlement, stand up, pound the table and say, regardless of the question: "That's a lie! I want to speak to HR right now!"

Dump: The trickiest but potentially most useful technique, in which you not only skate but also manage to pin your flop on someone else's resume. Requires planning, deviousness and a great actor's ability to communicate without words (after all, you don't want to leave your fingerprints on the weapon). When asked if your boss was involved with the disaster, shrug your shoulders -- but say nothing. When quizzed if he or she approved the budget, pause dramatically -- remember, you're loyal to a fault -- and then say, "I can't recall." With any luck at all, your humble demeanor and pained reluctance to criticize will be interpreted as sure signs of both your boss's guilt and your own readiness to ascend the corporate ladder. In fact, your boss's boss will suddenly confide in you; they just happen to have a manager's position opening up right now.

Can you blame him?

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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