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What to Do When Your Team Blames You (HBR)

Strategies to work through being blamed while keeping important relationships intact.

what to do when your team blames you, Dina D. Smith

(Originally published in HBR. Image: Steve Cicero/Getty Images)


By Dina Smith and Ron Carucci


Paul, an executive coaching client, reached out distraught, asking for guidance after a painful team meeting. During a routine project review, his employee, Elena, expressed concerns about the team’s heavy workload, exclaiming: “Six months ago we laid off more than half of the team, but you never reduced the workload the way you promised. We’re all working day and night, and you don’t seem to care.”


Paul shared that he was dumbstruck and unsure how to respond. He had asked the team to tell him if they were struggling with the workload, but no one had come to him. But judging from the other scowls in the room, it seemed Elena’s feelings were widely shared. Paul tried to assure her he did care and wanted to make things better and asked if they could continue the conversation offline. The collective eye-rolling made it clear nobody believed him.


We asked Paul how much merit Elena’s complaint had. He told us that since the layoffs, upper management was piling on more work despite promises to the contrary. He said: “I’ve tried to push back, but it falls on deaf ears. And I obviously haven’t done a good job paying attention to how it was impacting my team.”


At some point, regardless of how the circumstances arise, your team will blame you for something that’s making them unhappy, whether you have control over it or not. When things aren’t going well at work, the boss is one of the easiest places to aim dissatisfaction, as they see you as having more control than they do. Paul was fortunate that Elena did it openly. We’ve heard countless stories of passive-aggressive behaviors from employees that signal something is wrong, but when asked, they return a cold shoulder or say everything’s fine.


When your team blames you for something, it’s natural to feel a range of uncomfortable emotions. Paul felt understandably defensive because he wasn’t the one to mandate the layoff. It’s also possible to feel guilty, questioning your own actions and decisions that led to your team’s displeasure. Or you may feel isolated and unsupported, bearing the brunt of difficult decisions and their aftermath alone. We asked Paul what cues he might have missed that preceded the eventual eruption in the meeting. Initially steeped in shame, Paul struggled to look back objectively. But eventually, he connected a number of dots revealing that his team members, and especially Elena, were increasingly distressed.


Human instinct is to assign blame, and research shows that we judge the actions that result in negative consequences as being more deliberate than those leading to positive ones. This tendency is due to the fundamental attribution error, which leads us to blame people for situations beyond their control. Unsurprisingly, leaders attract more blame for failures than people in other positions; however, they do not receive more credit for successes.


The net of these psychological phenomena is that, as a leader, you could find yourself on the receiving end of your team’s blame more than you’d like.


Your Brain on Blame

Being accused by your team of failing them in some way, whether justified or not, induces a threat state in your brain, impairing your ability to think clearly and triggering a variety of cognitive distortions and defensive behaviors. When the proverbial crowd of fingers is pointing at you, it can lead you to irrational perceptions. Unlike other emotionally triggering experiences, where the amygdala runs amok with fight/flight/freeze reactions, blame adds some neural bonus features that make it even harder to navigate.


On top of triggering a sense of threat in the amygdala, blame can affect your ability to regulate your emotions. Further, blame activates the areas of the brain associated with rejection and shame, misreading of social cues, and distorted self-perception. This cocktail of neuro-reactions lights a veritable fuse and can set off self-protective behaviors, including blame-shifting, going on the counterattack, or justifying your actions without listening to your team’s concerns. Alternatively, feeling accused might lead you to downplay others’ feelings of frustration and anger, or avoid the situation altogether. However, these responses will only further degrade the morale and trust of your team.


In the face of blame — warranted or not — here are some ways you can work through the experience while keeping important relationships intact.


Be brutally honest with yourself.

When facing accusations and blame, managing the initial surge of negative emotions is crucial. Start by identifying and naming your feelings, asking yourself, “What are two or three adjectives that describe how I feel right now?” Research shows that briefly labeling your emotions can significantly reduce their intensity by lessening amygdala activity and engaging the prefrontal cortex. This step, along with accepting your emotions as a valid and natural response to the situation, will help you down-regulate your physiological response and shift into a more positive state.


Next, take an honest look at your contributions to the situation. Ask yourself, “What did I do — or not do — that contributed to these circumstances?” Consider how you might have handled things differently. For example, Paul realized that in his own frustration with feeling disempowered by the performance pressures, he’d failed to let his team know how he had advocated for resources and pushed back on the workload challenges. He also realized that he’d allowed his disenfranchisement to get in the way of that advocacy, likely making his appeals to leadership come across as half-hearted.


Replace defensiveness with self-compassion.

In addition to negative feelings like shame (I’ve been caught) and resentment (That’s not fair), your reflexive response to accusation will also be to self-protect. While defensiveness has an immediate appeal — it tamps down some of the emotional discomfort of blame — it has the unfortunate side effect of entrenching that discomfort for a longer period of time.


Before parsing out the truth within the accusation, adopt a posture of grace and self-compassion. Begin exploring whether you have any legitimate culpability. Tell yourself, “This doesn’t feel good, and if I come to see that this accusation has merit, I will forgive myself so that I can ask forgiveness from them.” Remember that the more you hold fast to the goal of establishing partial or total innocence, the more difficult reconciliation will be with your complainant. By beginning with a posture of self-compassion, you can show empathy to your complainants, regardless of your degree of blamelessness or guilt.


Listen, acknowledge, validate.

Schedule a meeting (or a series of meetings, if necessary) to address your team’s concerns. Initiate the conversation clearly and empathetically — for example, “I heard your concerns about workload and feeling unsupported. I want to understand your perspective. Can we discuss this and explore potential solutions together?”


Feeling accused, you may be tempted to defend yourself and counter their accusations, but this will only strain relations further. Instead, focus on listening actively: Give them your undivided attention, ask open-ended questions, mirror back what you hear, and adopt an open and nonjudgmental attitude. Research has shown that high-quality listening increases people’s sense of comfort and connection, facilitates insight, and even narrows the divide in perspectives.


Acknowledge and validate your team’s feelings and experiences, even if they differ from yours. Affirming their experiences will help them feel understood and valued and reduce their negative emotions. You might say, “I hear you and now I better understand how you feel overworked and unsupported.”


Own your part.

Leadership demands accountability, but often, not all aspects of a situation are within your control. Distinguish between what you were and were not able to influence to right-size and appropriately address feelings of guilt or shame. This will help you objectively consider what you might do differently moving forward. For instance, Paul couldn’t avert the layoffs, but he acknowledged that he overlooked his team’s distress signs and didn’t effectively challenge the additional work requests from senior management. And while Paul was responsible for his response to the layoff, he wasn’t responsible for Elena’s outburst.


When you fall short of your team’s expectations and they see you at fault, regardless of how much culpability you actually had, trust is ruptured. They may have lost faith in your abilities as a leader, your motives, or both. To start mending these relationships and rebuilding trust, issue a meaningful apology: Own up to what you did or failed to do, demonstrate that you understand how it impacted them, and share what you will do differently to prevent the same thing from reoccurring. For example, Paul said, “I failed to manage our team’s workload since the layoff, and I realize that has caused a lot of long hours, stress, and strain for you. I am sorry. Going forward, I will let you know when I make appeals on your behalf, and I will do so with more resolve instead of like a victim.” Showing humility by admitting to your shortcomings and mistakes fosters psychological safety and performance.


Build long-term solutions together.

By maintaining reconciliation as your primary focus instead of establishing innocence or guilt, you can work to repair the trust that’s degraded in the process — both your complainant’s trust of you and yours of them. Having taken responsibility, you can now figure out how to resolve things. The key here is not to go away, determine the best fix, and come back and unveil it. If you’re tempted to do that, it’s likely you’re trying to alleviate your guilt and restore their regard for you, not restore their trust and your relationship.


The more productive approach is to create solutions with your complainants. Ask, “So what do you feel is the best way for us to resolve this situation and prevent it from happening again?” Listen attentively to the answers, recognizing that some may be informed by lingering emotions and therefore aren’t realistic. Still, resist the temptation to correct people as they offer their ideas.


Elena suggested that they shelve 30% of their current projects and stop work on them immediately. While that wasn’t realistic, Paul was able to build on her suggestion by working with the whole team to generate criteria to prioritize the project portfolio, which he would then present to management with a recommended list of projects to stop or pause. The team also suggested mitigating some of the immediate backlog with freelancers and contractors to get things back on track. And lastly, they agreed to include personal capacity check-ins as part of their project reviews so Paul could maintain an accurate barometer of people’s emotional well-being.

. . .

Being on the receiving end of blame is an emotionally complex and painful experience. Its potential destruction to trust and cohesion in important relationships can’t be overstated. By having a playbook ready for when it happens, you can sidestep some of the ugliness and emotional fallout that often accompanies angry, pointing fingers. Instead, begin with the expectation that every accusation is an invitation to learn more about yourself and deepen trust with people you care about.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina

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