In the ever present drive for profits, scale has become the rule of the day within many industries big and small. You see this trend in government as well. Everything gets bigger and we consolidate wherever possible. Depending on your perspective, this provides both good and bad outcomes. On the good column, at least in competitive markets, is the lowering of costs for operating and commensurately reduced pricing for products and services. It all comes down as a natural course of consolidation. Bigger organizations usually can do more for less. The exception is if there is some sort of a monopoly situation, say in markets like telecom, airlines, or medical. In these instances we tend to see prices much higher than they should be even with the massive consolidation. But today’s article isn’t about the pros and cons of the natural tendency for markets to consolidate. It’s about one of the outcomes, which is that operationally, this usually creates management level decision makers who are removed from interacting with the individual contributors. Sometimes, actually quite often, these partially absentee decision makers have to come in and fix a problem. When there is a problem, there is blame, and when there is blame, there are usually many people who are trying to avoid being the one who is in trouble, i.e. CYA.
If you’re not familiar with the term, CYA stands for “Cover Your Ass”. The earliest reference I can find on the origin of the phrase was military in nature, specifically from the 1950’s and most likely from the Korean War, although I would not be surprised if it originated earlier than that. It became common military slang for when one soldier was covering another’s blind spots from enemy vantage points. Like all terms, it has grown in its use and scope. CYA now generally stands as a reference to engaging in behaviors related to avoiding the potential for problems at some future time. My assumption is that everyone reading or listening to this article understands that fact, but I thought that the origin of the phrase was somewhat interesting and stood as a good introduction for this conversation. Today’s CYA activities aren’t related to avoiding the risk of enemy fire from behind, but CYA is still needed in a work and social world where we don’t exactly know where the adversary will originate from.
It has to be said that in a perfect world, if something goes wrong, the decision makers will collect all the information, get to know the players involved if they don’t already, and correct the problem. It would be done without blame on any one person and everyone would work together to make sure the issue doesn’t happen in the future. If there was some cost in time, effort, or money, the cost would be shouldered by the organization or shared equally. That’s a perfect world and unfortunately it doesn’t exist. For many cultural, political, and/or organizational needs, there has to be blame. Since blame usually centers around a specific individual, what happens is the corrective action has to include some punitive action against an employee. Enough punitive actions, sometimes documented formally via write-ups, almost always results in a forced separation from the employer. As I have discussed ad nauseum. As rent payments, car payments and even cell phone payments, not to mention larger life needs like food and healthcare, all stem from employment, separation, especially involuntary separation, is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. It becomes a huge incentive for people to develop behaviors designed around escaping blame, and this behavior is generically called CYA.
As much as I’d love to explore the subject of how we can escape this world of blame and CYA, I don’t think it’s possible. It’s too embedded in the culture of humanity. We learn that we should avoid being in trouble early and practice it throughout our lifetime. We aren’t very sophisticated in how we practice it as children. This, in part, is because there usually isn’t much to lose even as we move into early adulthood. Normally it devolves into he said / she said type arguments. When young, the consequences could be a spanking or losing something we value for a bit of time. It’s different as we move on in life and the stakes get higher. When we are in the professional world it’s usually the time of life when there are children to feed, mortgages to be paid, and when our healthcare is our own responsibility, not our parents. There is real incentive to not lose what we have, so we do what we can to protect it. We definately get more sophisticated in how we handle CYA as our professional life experience grows. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some new things to learn and best practices to follow. Here are some of them.
Best Practice Number 1 – Document! Document! Document! This is a bit like the realtors mantra of location, location, location as being the primary driver of price in a market. Documentation drives value because it’s available months and years after the fact.
I recall the first time I ran into this concept in my professional life. I was mid-career but it was early in my tenure with a government agency. I had dropped off some paperwork, or maybe I had picked it up, I honestly don’t recall. The point was the person I exchanged information with asked me if I had a signed transfer sheet listing everything and the date and time of the transfer. I was picking up some files as a favor and driving them a mile down the road so the request seemed comically formal to me. I aquessed and we hurriedly wrote something up on paper and the office manager I was working with signed the document and made me a copy. Only years later did I comprehend the importance of his action when I learned we worked in a system where old paperwork is easily misplaced as it may not be needed for years on end. If it’s missing then the consequences can be severe.
If there is a concern, you should document it. If there is a challenge, it should be documented. If you have a conversation, you should document it. I think the most complex element of this is documented conversation. This can be a bit tricky because of the social aspects involved. It’s a bit anti-social to have a friendly conversation with someone that identifies some actionable points and then have a formal email exchange that details the conversation and expected follow up. People tend to be turned off when you say something like, “Ok, I’ll take care of that by next month” and then follow up with an email that says “Pursuant to our conversation, I have agreed to get the data to you in a formal report no later than November 30th”. Where the in person conversation communicates: “we are both on the same team and working towards the same end”, the documented exchange communicates: “I don’t trust you and i’m covering my rear end.” To help mitigate or eliminate the negative connotation I tend to use the trick of being open that I have to document it. Usually I find that my colleagues understand that every business process has its needs, and if I say something to the effect of, “I’ll send you an email listing these points so we both have something to fall back on” it’s generally perceived as a positive, not a negative.
It should go without saying but you do need a system to be able to locate the documented actions years after the fact. Labeling emails and keeping comprehensive filing systems are keys to success here. It does no good to do a fantastic job documenting your actions if you can’t recall the information instantly if necessary.
Best Practice Number 2 – Let Someone Else Take the Lead and manage from behind. If you care about your job, about the specifics of what you do, and if there is no financial incentive to be the point person, then let someone else take the glory. There are many benefits to this. If the project is a big flop, then the most visual person associated with the project is the target of interest. Another point is that if you are really passionate about the project, the lead on it is going to rely heavily on your input and support. In effect you get to manage the project. You’ll potentially gain a professional ally if you do the hard work. Even if the lead changes your position is still safe as you will be integral to the effort. Also, you’ll earn a positive reputation with those you have to engage with as you work on the project. If you think of this as something like being a really good showrunner for a concert tour you can see the benefit. The tour lead will never be on stage hearing the adoration of the crowds but if the act is a one hit wonder, the act will be lost to obscurity, but the tour lead will be on the next tour without a problem.
There is no question in my mind that it’s difficult to let someone else take the glory if you put in the majority of the effort, but there is also no question that this is a safer position to be in. If the project goes down in flames then the lead is the person whom all eyes will be upon. If the lead tries to pass the buck, and you’ve followed best practice #1, then they won’t have a leg to stand on as you will have documented everything you were told to do and when you were told to do it.
Best Practice Number 3 – In cases where you can’t or don’t want to work in the background, another option is the political route, i.e. get group buy in and participation. This is a much slower way of doing things because groups rarely work quickly. From a CYA perspective, it does help spread the risk of failure out so that there is no specific target when things go wrong. A potential failure can even be systematized as part of the group work so that there is an after action report and suggestions for improvement in the future. The real trick is to make sure that every aspect of the effort is determined by documented group consensus.
The positive side with this methodology is that as the project lead, you can still maintain the primary credit and visibility associated with the project. The person who is most engaged with any group project can have overarching influence on the project. I always think of the line from the first My Big Fat Greek Wedding Movie when I think of this approach. When Toula, the main character, was talking to her mother Maria about protests from her father, Maria explained how she would handle the protests. Maria used a comical analogy explaining the father may be the head of the family but the mother is the neck, and can turn the head any way she wants. If group consensus is the head of any project, the project lead or the coordinator is the neck.
Best Practice Number 4 – the final best practice is to micromanage the micromanager. It’s normal to be annoyed at having to deal with a micromanager who is constantly slowing up progress on your efforts by second guessing everything. It’s also normal to try and avoid the micro manager whenever possible so you can make timely progress. The challenge here is that the micromanager may be the first person to throw blame if they weren’t in the loop. The CYA here is to include the micromanger on everything, even if they aren’t looking at it very closely. The more you get their input or they know what you are doing, the more they will leave you alone. This is especially good if you are providing lots of formal reports directly to the managers in question.
I recall one situation vividly where I thought there could be some fall out and I knew I had to engage in some CYA. I had the opportunity to go to a conference that was not directly related to my current work activities, but I wanted to go as I knew it would be highly valuable for my long term focus. I went through the normal channels of having it approved but realized that it may have not been looked at closely enough and there could potentially be some fall out when someone down the line asked the question “why did he go?” As much as I wanted to go to the conference I knew if I made a big enough point about going I could get pulled off of the trip. I made a calculated decision to bring it up in my activity reports and verbally by using the conference acronym. Instead of saying something like: “I’m going to the Not Specifically For Me Conference” I said things like “I’m going to the NSFM conference next week, will be back the week after“ repeatedly to all parties to the point where they don’t pay it any mind. Fortunately I had planned ahead appropriately because someone somewhere eventually questioned my attendance and the commensurate costs. I was able to point to multiple conversations with different people up the chain as well as several reports where I formally had notified management. The final feedback was a curt email response of “Well share the materials from the conference with your colleagues” and that was the end of that conversation.
Even if they don’t like to take the blame, and let’s be honest, what manager will actually take on the full blame of something that went wrong? I find, the best case outcome would be a comment like “we both (meaning the employee and the manager) missed this.”
The world is complicated and getting more so. Organizations are becoming ever more impersonal as management ranks are thinned out. There are growing numbers of individual contributors and generally less team centered projects. This creates lots of opportunities for individuals to be the target when things go wrong. The more you understand and prepare for it, the easier things will go when a work effort implodes.
I was just thinking now as I finish this article. If any of my colleagues ever get caught as the target of blame for a work issue, I don’t think they’ll be able to drag me into it. I can always CYA myself by reminding them I had this article posted trying to help prepare them. I’ll remind them they should have seen it because, after all, they all say they read my blog and listen to my podcast all the time!