Much of the time, work teams achieve phenomenal success, thriving off each other's energy and ideas. But they don't have the phrase "office drama" for nothing, either. And sometimes, when conflicts arise, you're going to get the short end of the stick and have people blame you, even when you did nothing wrong. While this victim blaming can leave you scratching your head, wistfully clicking through job postings, it's usually the product of just a few psychological drivers. According to Dr. Jason Whiting, relationship therapist and professor at Texas Tech University, it all boils down to our love of certainty, fairness and safety.
When something unpleasant happens, people naturally will try to come up with an explanation for it. Their explanations are based on their own experiences, skill sets and acquired knowledge. They trust in the certainty of their answer rather than siding with you and the reality of details because admitting their mistake challenges their sense of ego and expertise.
- "We wouldn't be in this mess if she'd read the report."
- "Why didn't you just say no to the project?"
- "You should have waited before making the call."
These kind of statements reveal that the person blaming you is confident in their assumptions about what would have happened, had you acted differently.
People value fairness from the evolutionary perspective because they feel that, if everybody has the same rules and chances, there's less of a worry about missing out and being isolated. The underlying belief is that, if you do the right thing or what you're "supposed" to do, you'll get good things, and that if you do the wrong thing, or break the rules, you'll get bad things. So under the "just world fallacy", people will assume that, because something bad happened to you, you are at fault. The justifications they come up with are often not logical, connecting unrelated things, but it's hard for them not to blame you without giving up the sense of security they get from believing fairness always applies.
- "Her clothes are always too tight--no wonder the guys on the team keep making jokes."
- "He's just a dull person. I can understand why he gets the grunt work."
As we form relationships with others, we form an opinion about whether we can trust them or not, based on factors like their previous behavior and personality. In a conflict, however, people might not behave as we have come to expect. Others will blame you, rather than accept that someone they like did something wrong, because accepting what happened violates those preformed opinions and, subsequently, their sense of safety. It makes them doubt what kind of treatment they'll get from others or whether they'll be able to defend themselves, making them anxious, insecure and scared.
- "She wouldn't do that--she's not that kind of person. This is really unprofessional of you!"
- "He's completely harmless, and she's making him out to be a manipulative bully!"
- "I can't believe you're attacking someone who's done nothing but work himself silly to make this company successful!"
It never feels good to have fingers pointed at you when you're the one who deserves defense. But by understanding what drives people to the pointing, you might be able to keep your cool more easily and do a better job making your case. No matter why the blame is happening, remember--they're not really attacking you. Ultimately, they're just trying to protect themselves.