Culture Club: Beware of the Backbenchers


Official portrait of United States House Speak...

Speaker John Boehner - Image via Wikipedia

Backbenchers, alas, are everywhere.

They are the people in companies and associations who are quick to point out the flaws and misdoings of others but seldom are on-point to take responsibility or blame, especially when things go south.

They are folks who are adequately competent but are more interested in taking care of themselves – as well as alerting “management” to the shortcomings of others – rather than working hard to move the organization forward. More selfish, not selfless.

John Wooden said “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.

A backbencher’s motto and prime directive? “Don’t do anything that might shine an unfavorable light your way.

As a consequence, backbenchers frequently have Outlook calendars you could drive a truck through: they’re so empty though, they often they manage to expand their day taking hours with activities that most of us do in minutes because we have so much other stuff to do.

They do have time to write notes to senior execs that contain phrases like  “I’m sure you’re aware ” and  “I thought you should know” but seldom find time or courage to take matters (remember the prime directive) into their own hands directly. Back row, not front and center.

Like bed bugs and blog stalkers, backbenchers pop up when you expect them and when you don’t. They sap an organization’s strength and like barnacles built up on a ship’s hull, slow any progress forward.

Speaker of the House John Boehner’s recent flubbed payroll tax play? Blame (or credit, depending on your point of view) backbenchers. They chided Boehner into taking an unfavorable position and then bailed when it came to “fish or cut bait time” when the dumb ploy exploded on the GOP House caucus. Yes, backbenchers called the shots; Boehner ended up looking like a fool.

You can sometimes spot backbenchers  because they tend to favor the status quo though the “good old days” warm their hearts to no end. Change? Avoid it at all costs because it might let the barbarians at the gate slip in and shake things up.

The best thing an organization or association can do is rid or rehabilitate itself of its backbenchers. How? Ensure that everyone has the chance to shine – or take a fall – rather than restrict those opportunities to those who have initiative. Establish clearer systems of responsibility and accountability. Avoid picking on people who have screwed up and instead recognize people for doing – both accomplishing and failing – rather for playing it safe and doing little or nothing that involves risks.

Cut to the chase?

Life and change is messy. Feathers will get ruffled. It’s OK. It’s probably part of the process of growth. No pain, no gain. And a sign that the number of backbenchers in your organization is fewer, not many – which is a very healthy indication.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

Enhanced by Zemanta