Co-workers and bosses who blame everyone but themselves are a nightmare. But there may be something you can do
I was at a networking event the other evening, and got to chat with the panelists -- all successful businesspeople -- after their discussion. One of them was kidding another about a recent event where two of them had also spoken on a panel. "I couldn't believe what you said when that woman on the panel [a very well-known business and TV celebrity] was asked to share the biggest mistake she had ever made in her career," said one speaker. "She answered 'I've never made a mistake,' and you guffawed right in front of her!'"
That was a well-timed guffaw. Such an authentic, instant reaction to an outrageous statement surely takes chutzpah, but can you imagine the nerve -- let's go ahead and call it hubris -- that it takes to say to an audience of experienced businesspeople, "I've never made a mistake"?
Man, I wanted to have been there that night. I wish, wish, wish I had been sitting on that panel, so that I could have said to the poor woman, "How sad for you, to miss the valuable learning experiences that our failures provide."
We all know one of them, don't we -- those people who are Seldom in Error, and Never in Doubt? They just don't make mistakes. If all the evidence in the world says they made a misstep, they've got a ready answer to explain it away. It wasn't my mistake -- you must be confused -- that's not what I said -- and so on.
It's bad to have one of these people for a co-worker. But it's really, really bad to have one for a boss. The can't-fail businessperson is the one who isn't responsible when something is late, missing, or incorrect. Your instructions weren't clear, someone else was responsible, and that wasn't her understanding.
She's perfectly willing to take responsibility, but only for those things that go well. If she says that Dallas is the capital of Texas and you later point out that it's Austin, she will say that you misunderstood her -- she never mentioned Dallas. If she has incorrect information, someone misinformed her. She, by herself (it could just as easily be a he) is not, actually, when you get right down to it, wrong. "I am wrong," in fact, is not in her vocabulary.
"I'M PERFECT. YOU CHANGE."
You will work your little fingers to the bone putting everything you say to this person (and everything she says to you) in writing, in case of later confusion and finger-pointing. You will push for confirmation at every minor juncture, just so you don't find her slipping into "You weren't clear" mode later.
You have to do it, so that she cannot wiggle out of her commitments, and worse, make you the guilty one when something doesn't get done. But you also have to do something else: You have to let her know that you're wise to her racket.
Can't-fail colleagues are especially challenging because they breeze through their careers on a cloud of "I'm perfect. You change." But in my experience, barreling through situation after situation without an excuse or an apology is an M.O. made possible by the collaboration of co-workers.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN.
In other words, the Failure-Proof colleague can only get away with her outrageous behavior because people around her don't want to tell her that she is full of baloney. So they sigh and tolerate the impossible person in their midst. And they write memo after memo to cover their butts in case of problems. This is unfortunate.
When the aggravation becomes too much to tolerate, here's the lead-in to a frank conversation with your utterly perfect workmate. You say, "You know, Sarah, I really want to talk about our work on these team projects. It may be a coincidence, but it seems that whenever there's a problem, it's your view that I'm at fault, or that one of our teammates is responsible. It's really a challenge to find common ground when it seems that your first reaction to any problem is to blame someone else."
Here's an important part: After making your speech, button up -- and remain absolutely silent until and while she responds.
You will see Sarah's eyes reflect the rapid firing of neurons in her brain, looking for a way out. You have got her number, and she's frantically searching for a response more sophisticated than, "That's because you're an idiot," which is what she is saying in her head.
She will most likely express surprise and dismay, and challenge your assertion. So be specific. Remind her what happened with the new-product launch. Mention that little dust-up over the National Accounts Summit. And so on.
"You know," you'll say, "it almost seems as though whenever there's a breakdown, it can never be you who's in the wrong. I'm sure you don't truly feel like everyone on our team can make mistakes, except you -- but it sometimes appears that way, and I knew that you would want to know about that impression. Obviously, we all mistakes, and we learn from them. I knew you would share my concern that it's difficult to develop a team environment when people believe that you're above criticism."
DELUDED, INCOMPETENT -- AND UNTOUCHABLE.
Now her brain is saying "But I AM above criticism," but she will more likely say, "That sounds like your problem. I have never heard anyone else say that." That's O.K. You don't have to go further and tell her that everyone feels the same way -- let the other folks speak for themselves, if they have the cojones. You have made your point. I betcha Miss Perfect backs down, just a little, in her dealings with you.
Now what about the absolutely perfect boss? That's a bigger problem. You can grit your teeth and deal with him or her over time, and hope that the painful experience of working for this person will serve you down the road. Or you can quit.
I haven't seen a situation where a subordinate was able to successfully counsel an error-free boss, because the subordinate obviously doesn't have the political juice that would impel the boss to change. Sometimes senior management notices things like this. Sometimes it doesn't.
MOMENTS TO CHERISH.
It seems to me that the ability to sit in front of a room of adults and make your lips say "I have never made a mistake" is nearly a form of mental illness. It's beyond self-love -- it's a delusional state. And a sad one. I hope that I always learn from, treasure, laugh about, regret, wince over, and finally accept the 8 million mistakes I've made (including six or seven doozies just today).
I imagine that most other working people view mistake-making in a similar light. Like we tell our kids, it hurts now, but it's all a part of growing up. So if you find yourself struggling with a colleague or manager whose absolute perfection makes her difficult to deal with, take heart: This person deserves your sympathy most of all.