5 Things to Say When It's Not Your Fault

What can you do when misplaced blame slaps your professional reputation around? You feel shocked and hurt when your boss or coworker blames you out of nowhere for something that’s not your fault at work.

Childish backs-and-forths ideally get left in the schoolyard, where they belong. Unfortunately, pointing fingers still occurs in adulthood and even in the workplace, which contributes to toxic work culture.

How do you respond to accusations without sounding petty, unaccountable or unwilling to be a good team player? Here are five things to say when it’s not your fault.

1. “Now I know where to go for the information I need. Thank you.”

Situations may arise where you try your best, but it’s not good enough because you didn’t have all the resources you needed. Ideally, you ask clarifying questions when you feel confused, but sometimes you feel so lost you don’t even know what or how to ask.

This response redirects the “blame” back to a lack of information while communicating that you recognize the proactive steps you need to take in the future, with an appreciation for the matter getting brought up.

2. “I chose this course of action because…”

The company created a set of guidelines or an unspoken set of preferred courses of action that should be taken. But you made a conscious decision to go a different route. Then, you get confronted about it. What do you do?

This phrase allows you to discuss your thought process, provide the logical justification behind your decision, and walk the person through the steps you took. It also allows discussing strategy, which may open both of your eyes and potentially improve company policy, whether or not you’re “at fault.”

3. “There may be some confusion here. Can we talk about this at the team meeting?”

You know Sally screwed up the numbers on the report, but you’re not about to say that right now. Currently, you have to listen to rapid-fire negative feedback directed at the spot between your eyebrows, spittle included, and just a dash of a headache forming. What do you do next?

Here, you find yourself in a tricky spot because you don’t want to toss another body under the bus, but you also don’t want your reputation dragged through the streets. You want to walk the line between not being over-defensive and saying it’s not your fault respectfully. While people sometimes perceive delicate wording as passive-aggressive, you need to note possible confusion and redirect the topic to where the whole team gets to discuss it. The topic does concern everyone, after all.

4. “Let me retrace my steps before we discuss this matter further.”

Blame-placing catches you off guard even when no one intends to assign blame outright. You get swooped up in panic and brain fog because your past performance and gut both say you didn’t do any wrong here. But what if you did contribute to the error? And what if you have trouble recalling that point in time?

Stating that you need time to retrace your steps gives you breathing room without assuming the blame. It assures the other party that you are willing to look at your actions and you will follow up. Don’t immediately apologize — especially if you often find it hard to say “no.” Search for another course of action that allows you to stay true to your values and voice and make you an active team member.

Take in what the person has to say and perform due diligence by retracing your steps. Once you have more information, you have more power and resources.

5. “Well, why do you say that?”

This catches the accuser off-guard and comes with a mindfulness exercise that allows you to remain an impartial party. Don’t take it personally, with the help of a mini-meditation. While they speak, feel your connection to Earth and the weight in your legs. You’re grounded. Now, feel the upper half of your body become less solid. You’re mist, and whatever they say wafts right through you so you don’t absorb misplaced negativity.

Think of this meditation as a more mindful version of the classic “sticks and stones…” axiom. It also gives you enough psychic distance to listen objectively.

Play with tone on each of the words and see how they feel, because that also communicates intention. There is no single voice that’s normal, but tone affects the dynamic interaction between the listener, signal, context and speaker.

Sometimes, a slight, properly placed tone does all the communicating you need — a form of “I see what you tried to do there.” You alert the other party that you know they’re trying to push your buttons and you’re not going to stand for it. You also didn’t outright accuse them of that, either. The question gives them an opportunity to reflect and be more mindful of their words.

The “well” adds a pause for consideration before the impact of “why.” A pause provides time to listen and learn, and when you control the pause, you control the conversation. So pacing matters as much as tone.

A mostly neutral and natural tone is best to impart objectivity. You can always add: “That was informational, but I have to get back to work now.” Then, exit stage left, away from the drama-makers who always find something wrong.

The strategic question does still place you at risk, because some people just don’t stop. In that case, crack a smile, give a little laugh, like at a good-humored joke, or say “excuse me” with a smile and walk away. If the behavior continues, talk to someone you trust in a higher position who will offer advice or put a stop to it.

Ever been in a tricky situation where you had to talk your way out of misplaced blame? Had to deal with drama-makers at work? Add your scenarios and suggestions below.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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