‘A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.’
— David Brinkley, Journalist
L.P. Visentin, former president of Brandon University in Canada, suggested that in a university, politics manifests itself at many levels. Politics is present when decisions are made about tenure and promotion. And it is there when departments try to hire.
There are student politics and the unseemly politics surrounding university athletics. Where there are faculty and staff unions, there is a unique type of politics. There are politics endemic to professional societies and politics in relationships within and between institutions.
Political forces in colleges are never an easy ride, and unfortunately many careers have been shattered or significantly altered by the seemingly petty, arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory and often childish politically driven actions of others. Disagreement is not abnormal, nor is it unusual. It can even be ultimately productive.
It is my experience and belief that the majority of faculty, staff and administrators in the academy are dedicated, honest and selfless. However, there certainly exist unsavory political forces on campuses, and consequently, a colleague (or you) may be “thrown under the bus” i.e., made the scapegoat or blamed for something that wasn’t his responsibility in the first place.
How should an academic administrator respond after being thrown under the bus? While the maxim “Don’t get mad, get even” from National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) may sound tempting, this approach is certainly not in the best interest of your professional future, nor your academic unit, colleagues, or, most saliently, the students.
Remember the wise adage of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Take care when you do battle with monsters that you do not become a monster.” Revenge is not worth the time.
Admittedly, it is important to protect yourself professionally and personally. Not protecting yourself may result in shame, embarrassment, confusion, guilt or anger. These are unprofitable conditions and may yield envy, spite, prejudice, selfishness and revenge. Therefore, seriously think about the proper response first, and then move forward. And remember that all experiences are potentially valuable lessons.
The appropriate responses to being thrown under the bus — while possibly difficult in practice — are simple and sound in theory: Have a positive attitude, vent, behave with professionalism, and learn.
Have a positive attitude
Your attitude can make — or break — almost any situation. Rather than complain and be miserable (and thus likely negatively influence those around you), have a positive attitude about all the events in your life.
A positive attitude is up to you and you only. Dealing with any situation or facing any person (who may have thrown you under the bus) is not as important as your attitude toward the situation, said Jack Canfield and D.D. Watkins in Jack Canfield’s Key to Living the Law of Attraction: A Simple Guide to Creating the Life of Your Dreams.
Author Charles Swindoll noted, “The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable.
“The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude … I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you … we are in charge of our Attitudes,” Swindoll wrote.
Recognize and accept that everyone, sooner or later, will deal with unjust criticism. If you are patient in a moment of anger, you will escape 100 days of sorrow.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s most common and effective strategies in this regard was to write lengthy letters in response to the unjust criticism. This approach allowed Lincoln to vent his anger and frustration at the situation/person. But he would not send the document. He felt better but did not want to exacerbate the situation, said Donald T.
Phillips in Lincoln on Leadership.
C.S. Alexis advocated walking away as another strategy to vent. While walking away will not eliminate the anger or frustration concerning being thrown under a bus, in the short term it may be better to walk than to stay and find yourself saying or doing things you will later regret.
It may be very difficult to think and act rationally when angry. The time away from the issue provides an opportunity to consider all sides, review possible responses or solutions, and, as noted above, may help prevent making the problem worse.
Another excellent venting strategy is to simply let your feelings out. Talk, laugh, cry and express anger when you need to. Talking with friends, family, a counselor, or a member of the clergy about your feelings is an appropriate way to relieve angst from having been unfairly blamed.
Moreover, those willing to listen may have some effective strategies for you to help deal with the issue. A note of caution: Be wary of venting to colleagues.
Additionally, do not neglect the role that exercise can play in venting. If a stressor such as being thrown under the bus is not managed, it can potentially contribute to chronic health problems and conditions such as various cardiovascular diseases, several musculoskeletal conditions, and different levels of psychological disorders.
Behave with professionalism
Next, remember you are not responsible for the actions of whoever threw you under the bus. And you may not necessarily be responsible for that individual’s professional growth. However, regardless of the “thrower’s” position (e.g., professional peer or supervisor), your response can certainly affect your future and as such, you can (and I feel should) be an example. You may be concerned that the “thrower” will seek to negatively impact your career and possible next career move.
Someone who tends to unfairly blame others will likely continue to do so to obtain his goals. Subsequent to a number of “throwing” episodes, the aggressor may become desensitized to the victim’s feelings, taking the view that it is a “dog eat dog world.” Don’t let this person get the better of you. Identify your allies, take the proverbial high road, and keep a good reputation since others (a future employer?) will seek an audience with you if you maintain grace while under pressure.
Never forget that you are responsible for keeping your attitude, energy, outlook and professionalism as high as possible.
By doing so you may just stir within the “thrower” a response of remorse, and a concomitant positive change in future behavior when he sees your professionalism in the face of his meanness, say William R. Cupach and Daniel J. Canary in Competence in Interpersonal Conflict.
Admittedly, responding with professionalism and optimism is a significant challenge. Rather than judge the thrower, be an example. Actually, the experience of being thrown under the bus (while not pleasant) is an opportunity for you to grow and potentially develop a hidden trait, skill or wisdom that otherwise may have remained dormant.
Rise to these occasions and appreciate the opportunity to learn. Never forget that what happens on you is much more important than what happens to you, say Canfield and Watkins.
Even if you do not get through to the person who made you the scapegoat, at least you can feel good about handling the situation with professionalism, respect and maturity. I believe, and hope, this approach is the best way to prevent it from happening again. If you respond bitterly, and/or with a short fuse, you just let the thrower win. Nobody wants that.
Lastly, consider the notion that when something goes wrong (i.e., an individual has been thrown under the bus), the natural reaction is to identify the culprit. Instead, think about how the experience can result in personal and professional growth, rather than who was at fault. Here is a list of questions to help analyze being thrown under the bus:
- Did you learn any lessons?
- Are you appreciative for the experience?
- Can your experience help others?
- Can your experience help you?
- Did you fail because of another person, the circumstances or yourself?
You will never reach your administrative/professional potential if you do not assume responsibility for your actions and learn from having been thrown under the bus.
Never forget that it is not how many times you fall but how many times you get up that matters. Good for you, for standing up, having a healthy attitude, being professional, and moving forward.
About the author
J. Dirk Nelson is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at West Texas A&M University. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.