How to Look Good When a Coworker Blames You

© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Most of us have had to cope with a coworker that drives us nuts. The woman one cube over argues with customers. That dude in sales thinks he’s better than everyone.  Often, these folks find themselves in trouble but, surprisingly, many of them do very well on the job.  Why is that? The Wall Street Journal says people who avoid conflict can be seen as ineffective, while managers who engage in conflict, or at least don’t shy away from it, are viewed as being better for the bottom line. WSJ wrote, “It’s not that firms want contentious leaders, but those who retreat from confrontation tend to postpone hard decisions and allow problems to fester.”  That makes sense to me, but it is maddening to watch a high-conflict person advance while we play nice and go nowhere. Bill Eddy of the High Conflict Institute writes, “The workplace is where many HCPs deal with their relationship issues.” In other words, an HCP is preoccupied with his (or her) internal difficulties, be it an outside relationship or with someone at the office, and he’ll not only lose focus on workplace matters, he’ll blame coworkers for his own problems.

How to Prevent Looking Bad to Your Boss With Just One Email

Part of the solution is understanding the motivation behind how HCPs think differently than normal folks.  The other part is in recognizing the part you play and choosing the words you use, so be BIFFBrief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. For instance, you are Karen and opened your email to find this:

Mark, I am responding to your request for an update on Project X.  Despite my efforts, we are behind schedule. I was working on this constantly, but I’ve been waiting for Karen’s statistical report and I can’t move forward without it. She’s promised me the report several times and as soon as I get it, I’ll be able to finish the project. I keep telling Karen to manage her time better, but I’ve been worried all along that she is not competent enough to work here and you should think about letting her go. I am copying Karen on this email so that you can try to get her on track for the team. Best, Harry.

Oh great, he’s at it again: blaming everyone else for his own failure and trying to get you fired on top of it! You have the report nearly done, but Harry keeps tasking you with other stuff and he made you cover for Chris who was on vacation. You have no time to finish the report even if you skip lunch and breaks. When you tried telling him it was too much and asked him to help with the report, he just said you should work late, which is against policy and would mean you could not pick up the kids on time from daycare.

You felt like writing back to say all that, but would it help or hurt? You’ve been reading up on high-conflict bosses and learned that HCPs will “project” their own behavior onto others. In Harry’s case, he’s blaming you when it’s actually his responsibility to dole out realistic workloads and to ensure deadlines are met.  Harry is projecting his own management failures onto you. You take pride in your work and get excellent reviews from other managers, but you’ve learned the hard way that defending yourself from Harry just gets him riled up and keeps the emails coming. With ending it in mind, you decided to respond as follows:

Hi Mark, Harry is correct that the project is a week late and I agree that meeting deadlines is important to the company.  To finish the report, I will need about 16 hours dedicated to working on the analysis and finishing the writing. Chris is back from vacation so I am no longer covering his workload in addition to my own. Since other projects I was given have later deadlines, I suggest that I spend the rest of this week finishing Project X. This would also allow me to get it done without overtime. If you prefer that Harry assist with the analysis, please let us know before noon, otherwise I will implement this plan to finish the project quickly.  Thanks, –Karen.

It’s only one paragraph, so it’s Brief.  It ignores Harry’s “blamespeak,” which would just fuel his fire, and focuses only on factual matters, so it is Informative. It’s Friendly because you agreed with Harry about deadlines and acknowledged it is important. It’s Firm because it gives Mark a choice as to how Harry might help or not, but either way presents a plan to resolve the matter with no discussion of anybody’s shortcomings.

The Secret Of A Successful Email To The Boss is…

…Don’t follow your instincts.You could have written back and said,  “Geeze, I’m sorry. I’ve been really busy, but I’ll try to get it done this week.” Many of us feel like this is appropriate because we don’t want to get in trouble with bosses. We keep our mouths shut, apologize and work late.  However, this is the kind of conflict avoidance the WSJ article noted as an undesirable employee trait, and I have to agree.  When you apologize, HCPs like Harry just think (or say) “See? I was right.” Worse, it gives Mark the impression that Harry’s false accusations were correct, which could put your job in jeopardy.

Another gut-feeling response is, “I would have had the report done a long time ago, but Harry is a lousy manager and keeps derailing my time then blames me for it!” Even though it’s true, it would backfire. Harry would write back explaining how it’s not his fault and the conversation would veer off into he-said-she-said land and take time away from anyone finishing the darn report. It’s not always necessary to defend yourself, but in this case, you should because (A) Harry recommended that you be fired and (B) you could lose performance credibility with Mark. We don’t recommend that you make defensive statements overtly in your BIFF Response, however. Go back and read it again and you’ll see you already presented your defense indirectly in a BIFF way; Mark knows whose job it is to assign projects and cover vacations and you stated in a non-blaming manner that the reason for the delay was due to those factors and that working overtime is against policy.

If You’re BIFF, You Can Increase Your Job Successes

Overriding what you feel to be right is one of the hardest things to do when you’re dealing with an HCP, but it will make your BIFFs simpler, effective and more likely to end the conversation with a positive outcome. Moreover, the BIFF Response® above protected you from possible harm and more emails, and it is the kind of response supervisors like Mark notice and appreciate. From Mark’s standpoint, the conflict was resolved with no effort on his part, the report will be done and it’s a reasonable and responsible manner in which to contend with workplace conflict. You can believe that Mark will remember it when advancement opportunities arise.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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