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A Supermodel, or a Kicker?

By Michael Lentz, Wagonheim Law Attorney

Super Bowl 46If you own or operate a business, things are going to go wrong. With planning, preparation, and a little luck, your disasters will be small and infrequent, but they’re going to happen. A long-time client of our firm likes to say (quite correctly) that good habits are learned in bad times, and bad habits are learned in good times. The recent Super Bowl, and one of the contests leading up to it, provided a reminder of how right he is.

As most of our readers probably know, the Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl™ 46 earlier this week. It was an exciting game throughout, with the outcome in doubt until the final play. Both teams could well have won. After the game, a Giants fan in the crowd was heckling Gisele Bundchen, the supermodel wife of the Patriots’ star quarterback, Tom Brady. Bundchen fired back that her husband “couldn’t [expletive] throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time,” essentially blaming her husband’s receivers for the Patriots tough loss.

Two weeks earlier, the Ravens’ epic failures in the last minute of the AFC Championship game delivered a massive gut-punch to sports fans in this purple-everywhere town. Lee Evans, a wide receiver for the Ravens, dropped a pass that would have won the game and sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Seconds later, Billy Cundiff missed a routine field goal attempt that would have sent the game into overtime. Instead, the Patriots were moving on, and I suspect a fair number of folks in Charm City were picking up bits of newly-broken television sets.

Less than half an hour later, Cundiff appeared at a podium to face the national media. He explained that the kick was one he’d made a thousand times in his career, and he just missed it. He could have blamed the snapper, the holder, the turf, or the wind. He could have blamed anything or anyone. He could have stayed silent, declining to give interviews – it would have been hard to blame him for slinking quietly home.

One of the reporters, recognizing that most players would have opted for the sanctuary of a locker room, asked Cundiff why he had come out. The first thing out of his mouth was “Because I have kids.” He wanted to set an example for his own children and others – wanted to teach them to take responsibility for their mistakes. He said, in essence, this was my job and, on this occasion, I failed. (Evans later said essentially the same thing to a different media cadre about his own performance). One commentator said that Cundiff should be cut, and his teammates should be upset if he returned to the team next season.[1] Teammates universally supported Cundiff.

I was genuinely uplifted, both by Cundiff’s comments and by the team’s reaction to the situation. I hoped that his comments would get as much media coverage as his missed kick (not quite, but almost). The reflexive instinct to blame someone else has become almost as American as apple pie. How could it not? Congress and the President fill the nightly airwaves with two things: bad news and attempts to blame the “other side” for the bad news. Not long ago, our credit, as a nation, was downgraded. The downgrade occurred almost entirely because the rating agency didn’t trust the nation’s leaders to work together to get anything done.

Unfortunately, the tendency to avoid responsibility is pervasive in businesses as well. Many businesses are burdened with employees who leap at the first chance to throw a colleague under the proverbial bus. The “blame-somebody-else” culture is terribly destructive for a business, for at least two reasons. First, employees concerned about figuring out who to blame for a problem or mistake probably aren’t trying to prevent the problem or mistake from recurring. Second, employees who routinely blame their colleagues, even correctly, are corrosive to morale and office camaraderie; employees become defensive and isolated, instead of cooperative and collaborative. Likewise, an employer who’s overly focused on assessing blame may create such a culture. More importantly, focusing on blame too much or too soon might mean missing an opportunity to remedy the effects of the disaster, or at least prevent another similar one.

As a business owner, your employees are going to make mistakes; that’s for certain, and it’s not something you can entirely prevent. You can control how you respond to them and, to a lesser extent, how they respond to them. Certainly, you can neither tolerate nor encourage consistently substandard performance. But neither should you allow an isolated mistake or lapse in judgment to derail or hinder an otherwise promising employee or career. Focus instead on learning from the mistake; learn what happened, and why, and how it can be prevented in the future. If you respond in a measured and reasoned way, they likely will too. Instead of shirking responsibility, you may find that your employees are more willing to embrace it.

Employees willing to stand up and admit their own mistakes will quickly earn the respect of their colleagues. Those who throw their colleagues under the bus will quickly find themselves isolated, and you’ll find your business divided. When enough people get thrown under the bus, it gets cozy down there, and pretty soon you’ve got a cadre of “thrown,” who resent their colleague(s), and a cadre of “throwers,” all thinking their colleagues are incompetent and looking to save their own skin.

Billy Cundiff’s miss two weeks ago was surely an awful time for any Ravens fan, but he taught his kids (and anyone else listening) a fantastic habit. He made one of the worst mistakes that someone in his profession can make, in front of a national television audience. Given the chance to hide, or blame, he did neither – he stood up and admitted that he failed to do his job.

If I ran a business, a stand-up guy like Cundiff is a guy I’d want around, whether he could kick or not – I might not keep him as a kicker, if I thought he couldn’t kick, but I’d find something for him to do.

An employee willing to stand alone in the middle of a disaster, as Cundiff was, usually finds he’s not alone for very long, as Cundiff did. Employees willing to take responsibility make teams, and bring people together; look for and reward the Cundiffs on your team – leave the diva supermodels to somebody else.