3 Ways the Blame Game Keeps You Powerless at Work (& How to Get it Back)
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Case study: Two colleagues, one office. One office mate is loud and gregarious. The other, craves quiet. Larry invites passersby in for loud discussions. His phone conversations are loud. Even his thought processes are done out loud. This is disruptive for Kevin, who prefers to work and concentrate in a quiet office space. Kevin blames Larry for making his workday feel uncomfortable, stressful, and full of conflict as he tries to work despite the distractions. Kevin blames Larry for being thoughtless and disrespectful. Kevin feels sure that he is in the “right” and Larry is in the “wrong.”
The Problem with Blame.
1. Blame is just avoiding conflict.
It’s like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water. There will be temporary control but sooner or later the steam will burst out again. Possibly more violently than before. Feelings like injustice and frustration boiling under the surface will eventually overflow as anger and despair. Avoiding conflict takes energy. Energy is expended on suppressing frustrations or in telling others of the enormity of their fault. Continuous energy is also spent on reacting to the ongoing conflict that is out of our control. This is energy that could be spent on solutions. In our case study described at the beginning, Kevin is putting a lid on his feelings, and likely, will boil over with the stress. By blaming his office mate Larry, Kevin is avoiding the conflict, building up resentment, and spending valuable energy on an unproductive process.
2. Blame is adversarial.
It places involved parties on opposite sides with one party “right” and the other party “wrong.” Kevin has put himself and Larry in an oppositional relationship of “me” against “him”. This feels like a battle ground. An extension of adversarial thinking is that responsibility for the problem lies solely with the “other” party. Kevin claims no responsibility for the conflict. He thinks that Larry must do all the work to handle the problem and ease the conflict.
3. Blame is about giving up power.
When we have given up responsibility, we feel powerless. When we use blame to avoid conflict, we blind ourselves to our capacity to act and communicate differently to solve a problem. We believe we cannot take responsibility. Do we really believe we are powerless to bring about change in a situation? Sadly, by blaming Larry, Kevin has also given up control of the conflict. Abdicating responsibility, ironically, places Kevin in the helpless victim role as he depends on Larry to handle the conflict. While waiting to see change, Kevin is left reacting to Larry’s loud behaviors and working in an office environment that is uncomfortable for him.
Ownership takes back power.
In this desperate state of victimization, it is important to stop blaming and start thinking in new ways. We need to think about our role in the conflict. For Kevin in our case study, this means that he recognizes that even though he did not create the loud component of his environment, the uncomfortable environment is his. He is part of the conflict and also part of the solution. He owns this conflict. Like Kevin, we also need to own our own conflicts recognizing our part in the problem. It is ours to solve and we can do this.
Finding solutions requires reflection.
As one party acting in the conflict, we need to reflect on our own actions in the interactions. After all, we are experts on this conflict. We are living with the problem and intimately acquainted with the circumstances. We also need to see through the other person’s paradigm, trying to understand where they are coming from. For our office mates this means that Kevin considers that Larry is probably outgoing and stimulated by loud energy. It would be unsuccessful and unreasonable to ask for a personality change. Kevin thinks about his own personality and need for quiet. It would not work for him to change his own nature either. He can respect Larry’s gregariousness while asking for respect and help with his need for a quieter office.
Everyone can learn to handle conflict in positive ways.
Reflecting on our own part of the conflict and seeking to understand more of the other person’s paradigm gives us new perspectives and different ideas. We feel less stuck and more in control. For Kevin, this reflection helps him see that he can create a way forward with new, more effective ways of communicating and acting. Kevin chooses to become more independent by taking control of his responses and planning new ways of handling the situation. He plans to ask Larry to take disruptive conversations into the hall and to invest in noise cancelling headphones for himself. He further takes ownership by deciding that success will be having a discussion with Larry in which he communicates respect for Larry’s outgoing personality as well as his own need for a quieter office. Kevin is careful to explain his use of the headphones to avoid offending Larry and includes Larry in contributing solutions. Kevin has taken ownership of his conflict, identified successful solutions, and is moving towards a productive workplace relationship.
Taking Ownership of Conflict Resolution
Stop giving control to others by blaming and passing ownership.
Start owning the conflict. We are part of the conflict. Believe that we have the power to do something different that will cause change.
Find solutions by reflecting on our actions and looking through the other person’s paradigm.
Decide for ourselves what a successful resolution looks like.
Maintain ownership by following through on the solutions.
When to get help.
While the steps to conflict resolution are straightforward, their application is not simple. Many factors complicate the process. The parties involved may get stuck at any of the following points.
Difficulty overcoming the multiple paradigms and biases involved in the conflict.
Struggling to find the skill level required to communicate in conflict situations.
Conflict that moves from an isolated situation to a chronic problem. This indicates that many unproductive interactions are taking place and wedges have been driven into working relationships.
It takes time to work through conflict in relationships. Leadership may find that their time on these issues has become too intense or politically complicated. Bringing in an outside source to provide consultation can bring a fresh start with new perspectives and skills to resolve conflict. Use your resources.
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