“How could you possibly have missed this? “Where were you when this was going on”?
No manager likes to have these questions put to them because there is simply no right response. You are the boss, you are in charge, and you are ultimately responsible and accountable for outcomes. The facts that you were very busy, juggling many balls simultaneously, preoccupied with other important matters, and have purposefully delegated real authority, responsibility, and autonomy in making decisions to your subordinates, are all irrelevant. The buck always stops with you.
Having to shoulder this responsibility and assume ultimate accountability is the primary source of stress for all managers. And the more you try to deflect blame in these situations the worse you are likely to look in the eyes of your superiors.
What the best managers know is that these moments will happen no matter how hard they try to avoid them. It is the nature of all human enterprises that some things will get missed from time to time; the more complex the enterprise or work, the greater the likelihood. What the best managers do, however, is develop a mitigating strategy designed to reduce the frequency.
In my experience as a manager what seemed to work best was to carve out some time — on a regular basis — to get out among your immediate subordinates to gain insight into your organization’s daily activities on their turf and from their point of view.
For the past several decades this has often been called managing by walking around. But the key is not the walking but what you actually do on those regular “walk abouts” and how you actually engage your subordinates. Most of us are somewhat wary when the boss asks “how are you doing” or “how’s it going” lest we seem less than on top of things. Consequently, we develop well-practiced phrases designed to let them know that all is well and that things are in our good hands.
Getting beyond these perfunctory exchanges — getting subordinates to open up and share their thoughts on current or potential problems, to offer their perspective on issues of significance, and to offer new ideas about your organization’s output or service — involves developing trust. It also requires that you develop your ability to engage in meaningful conversations with subordinates where they believe you really wish to hear what they have to say about their work, where they are unafraid of being honest and perhaps vulnerable to your judgment, and where they believe that you will take their ideas seriously.
This entire process takes time, must become a regular part of your operating style, and must occasionally be backed up with positive action on your part based upon what you hear. Above all, a subordinate should not suffer for her or his honesty including comments suggesting that you might do a better job at something. Your reward, however, will likely be real: a reduction in the number of occasions where you failed to notice something happening right under your nose.