“This is all your fault.”
“I can’t trust you to do anything right.”
“If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be in this situation!”
Have you ever started an argument, run out of patience, or pointed at someone else when things went frustratingly wrong?
We all respond differently to tense or challenging situations, and accusing others instead of taking responsibility is a common reaction to feeling overwhelmed.
Maybe you’ve blamed a project failure on a “too small budget.” Perhaps you’ve accused a colleague of delaying work when you didn’t answer their questions promptly. Can you come up with an example of your own?
Whether you’ve done it consciously or without realizing it, unfairly shifting responsibility this way can seriously damage your relationships.
It’s important to understand and manage this tendency to work effectively as a team or organization, and that’s what this blog is all about.
Why We Blame Others Under Pressure
So why do things always seem to become someone else’s fault when we’re under pressure from our work, relationship, or personal life?
There are a few psychological theories about why stress makes us more likely to blame others.
Attribution Theory, proposed by Heider and colleagues, suggests that we interpret events and relate them to our thoughts and actions through internal or external attributions.
- Internal attributions are based on someone’s characteristics or disposition. For example, we might assume a teammate produced poor quality work due to a lack of intelligence or hard work.
- External attributions link events to factors beyond our own or others’ control. In this case, we might assume the same teammate did not have the right resources or tools to excel at the task.
According to Heider and colleagues, blaming others would be an example of an internal attribution style in action. This may come to the surface when we are stressed out, and our guard is down.
The second school of thought is Psychoanalytic Theory, which premises that we blame others as a psychological defense mechanism.
By pointing the finger at someone besides ourselves, psychoanalysts argue that we are sparing ourselves from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings—perhaps shame, inadequacy, or embarrassment.
It’s a coping strategy, in this sense, which protects our self-esteem during difficult or stressful times.
Regardless of which theory you relate to, it’s clear that finger-pointing isn’t the healthiest way to cope with pressure. Like picking fights and distrusting others, playing the blame game harms trust, collaboration, and our own personal growth. This is why I created the Blaming Stress! Coaching Card.
3 Ways To Quit Playing The Blame Game
If you feel like this is a stress reaction you’re prone to, I’ve researched three tips to help you turn that around. These strategies can help you address challenges without making unfair accusations or burning bridges; try whichever appeals to you the most, or all three!
1. Practice Balanced Attributions
If you were wondering whether internal or external attributions are “better,” the answer is “bi-directional attributions,” aka a healthy balance of the two.
Practicing bi-dimensional attributions means considering both intrinsic and extrinsic factors when understanding an event (such as a missed deadline) or behavior (e.g., a colleague’s tardiness). It not only helps you avoid making unfair accusations, but it can also lead you to a more rational interpretation of events.
If a co-worker fails to show up for a meeting, for example, it would involve considering their disposition and their circumstances: “Kevin could have been more considerate, but he has also been incredibly busy.”
Can you think of some more examples?
Another tip is to try addressing the problem rather than reassigning the blame to someone else. This shifts your focus away from accusing others while helping you find a practical solution to the problem.
The next time you’re tempted to implicate someone else for a challenge or failure, try the following step-wise approach to problem-solving:
- Identify the problem. Be as specific and objective as you can about the challenge. Is it “work stress” or “too many projects to manage?”
- Analyze the problem. Try to identify the underlying cause of the challenge by asking “why?”
- Brainstorm potential solutions. Aim to resolve the issue rather than finding someone else to blame!
- Evaluate your solutions, and choose the best one. What are the pros and cons of each? Which will most effectively improve the situation for everyone involved?
- Implement the solution. Take action!
- Evaluate the solution. Did your strategy work? If so, great! If not, work backward to find out what went wrong. What can you do better next time?
3. Empower Yourself!
We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions to thoughts, feelings, and actions in response to pressure. Building your sense of empowerment is a great way to grow personally and open yourself up to new ways of managing stress.
These five steps can help you do that:
- Recognize and accept your emotions. Everybody can experience disappointment, frustration, or upset when things go wrong. Recognizing these as normal emotions is key if you want to manage them more adaptively.
- Show accountability. You may or may not be at fault regarding the problem itself, but you are in charge of your own response to it. (Or you can learn to be!) Make a conscious decision not to blame someone else and focus your energy elsewhere.
- Be solution-oriented. Ask yourself “What practical steps can I take to resolve this problem?”
- Practice positive self-affirmations. Remind yourself that you can be more constructive. Try “I’m choosing to address the problem, not the person,” or “My reaction is my decision!”
- Never stop learning. Try to learn from each challenge you encounter, whether you succeed or slip up. The more you work on self-empowerment, taking accountability, or problem-solving, the better you’ll become at it. Trust me!
Heider, F., Kelley, H., Jones, E. E., & Ross, L. (2010). Attribution theory. In Handbook of Theories of social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 81-101). Sage Publications.