By Stephanie Reynolds

Here’s a typical scenario:

Your team is working nights under a killer deadline, with scarce resources, but still kicking butt and you deliver complex results on time.

Then you send your work downstream to the next part of the organization. They are late (again), the work product is not up to standard, and the company misses a key deadline. You know what comes next, someone’s “head on a platter.”

The next day, you get an email thread from your boss copying you and other key execs, which has a list of issues cited by the downstream leader, pointing the finger at your group for the problems. Your boss is upset, and says in his email “how could you let this happen?” You feel like not only were you and your group unjustly accused, your boss abandoned you, and then blamed you in front of the other leaders. Yikes! Now what do you do?

Flying Blame

Unfortunately blame flies around organizations all the time; you just don’t want it to stick to you when it’s not really your responsibility. If it is, well, that’s another story for another blog.

The truth is, scarce resources are typical, as are unrealistic deadlines and rushed decisions that often lead to poor outcomes. So blame is somewhat inevitable unfortunately, because there are many leaders that don’t take the time to plan for shortfalls, mistakes, and the re-work necessary to get many projects done correctly. They feel they don’t have the luxury, or they don’t apply the discipline, or both. And so it goes…

Cool Your Head

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve seen your boss over-react and blame in front of others. Also, it’s probably not the first time you’ve seen the downstream leader blame you when things go wrong. You feel really badly each time, and wonder “why me?”

Unhook from the negative emotions

The most important first step is to be in your own “corner”. You feel terrible, you may be screaming mad, or freaked out, so talk to yourself for a minute or two and tell yourself that it makes sense that you would be feeling this way, and give yourself a few minutes to just acknowledge it. This will help the adrenaline in your system to dissipate, making it easier to get blood flow back to your brain where you need it.

We tend to skip the step of centering ourselves first, and calming ourselves down before we act, running the risk of over-reacting and looking unprofessional. Take a walk, or think out loud with someone whose problem solving skills and judgment you trust, to get some of the initial upset out of your system, and help you brainstorm solutions. Realize it feels personal, but in actuality, it may not be at all. Ask yourself what outcomes would be ideal for you and your group, and plan from there.

Once you are calm, then you should respond:

The calmer you are, the easier it will be for you to pick the right course of action.

One series of steps could be:

  1. Talk with your boss, to help him/her understand what really happened and ask what prompted him/her to assume you guys were to blame (this may provide insight into their thinking).
  2. Do some research to justify what you know to be true.
  3. Pick the time and the place to share that information with all the key leaders, for the maximum impact and recovery.

The calmer you are, the more you will garner respect, credibility, and in fact, may grow in the eyes of the other leaders as someone who can “take it and respond professionally”. Sometimes things that look really bad on the surface can end up being a breakthrough moment in a career.

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