Being Unfairly Blamed at Work

How to deal with a boss who blames you for doing exactly what they told you to do.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #63

Today's topic is dealing with a boss who blames you, even when it’s not your fault. The quick and dirty tip is to acknowledge the facts and feelings, take the blame if it’s necessary and safe, and move on to solutions.

Keith writes in:

What do you do when you have done exactly what your boss asks? Say, book a certain Hotel in Las Vegas. And then when you arrive, he goes all Jekyll and Hyde on you -- changing his mind and throwing a big tantrum? What's the best reaction to workplace anger? Should you admit fault -- even though you've done nothing wrong? I like to be right, but I like to be employed more. What do you think?

Keith, we’re on the same wavelength! I love being right, too, especially when it's about modern art, great literature, or anything that requires specialized knowledge. I have lots of specialized knowledge, although not in any of those areas, so I can speak with absolute authority, without the hassle of actually learning anything about the subject. I state my convictions firmly and everyone assumes I'm an expert. Life is good.

As you’ve discovered, this falls apart when it’s a battle with the boss. If the boss says “Jump,” you jump, and then the boss yells at you for jumping, you're in a quandary. Do you get sucked into the right-and-wrong game, or do you let your Boss have his way and move on?

If you've ever seen the Devil wears Prada, you know some bosses are evil, manipulative, sadistic monsters who like watching people fail. It seems really wrong to stand by and take it when someone like that wrongly accuses you.

Do Right and Wrong Matter?

I’ve noticed over the years that often, when I don’t have the power, being right is irrelevant. We all think we’re right, and when we’re angry, we think we’re right even more than other times. Even though you know you’re right in this case, your boss knows you’re wrong. Since your boss has the power, I’m sorry to say, he’ll win a right/wrong battle, period. After all, just like you and me, she also likes being right.

When Stakes Are Low, Take the Blame and Move On

In the grand scheme of things, a hotel reservation isn’t very important. It’s not going to get you fired. I suspect the best course of action here is to accept the blame and move on to fix matters. Your boss gets to feel like “The Decider,” and you get to take the moral high road and feel superior. If your boss is irrationally angry, being defensive will just come across as an attack. Instead, say, “I’m very sorry, I must have misunderstood. What would you like me to do?” If you have a suggestion, say that here, too. The key is to agree with your boss. Anger can’t stand up to agreement. So let your boss rant, show remorse, and move into problem-solving.

If your boss stays in blame mode for a while, just sit and listen. It can be hard, but remember, your boss isn’t really mad at you. Your boss is mad at his fantasy of reality. You just happen to be there. Nod. Agree quietly. Then ask, “What shall we do now?” Under no circumstances should you be defensive, or snide, or patronizing. That will just set your boss off again.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.