You’re going about your day and everything seems fine, until someone on your team says, “Hey, don’t look at me, it was probably her fault!” And suddenly you can’t think about anything else because you’ve just been thrown under the bus for something you’re sure you didn’t do, which makes you want to pull your hair out and head home for the rest of the day.
Most, if not all, people have experienced this finger pointing. There are a lot of ways you could respond to someone when they try to make you the scapegoat, but some approaches are more effective than others.
And if we’re being honest, the scenarios we daydream about in which we scream at the other person until they beg for forgiveness aren’t actually good for anyone. But there are a few other things you can do in response.
1. Take a Short Walk to Clear Your Thoughts
I know this might sound basic, but that’s by design. I bet you can think of a handful of times in which you responded to this situation by running and venting to the first person you could find. And then you located another person to vent to. And so on.
Airing our frustrations is healthy, but much like most things that make us feel better temporarily, it’s best done in moderation. And you already know this, but it’s also best done with someone you don’t work with.
I’m not telling you not to complain to someone you trust (in fact, it’s a good idea to some extent). But I am suggesting that you try spending a few minutes by yourself first. If you have the time, get out of the building and grab some fresh air. If not, take a lap around the office. Let yourself be angry. And don’t let yourself go back to your desk until you’ve calmed down a little bit. Then, and only then, should you reach out to someone else. (But again, not a co-worker.)
2. Schedule Some Time for the Two of You to Chat
If you really want to move on from being thrown under the bus, there are two painful truths you’ll face. For starters, you’re bound to have a really tough conversation with your co-worker. And more importantly, you need to remember that even the nicest tone could make that person feel like you’re attacking them.
Unless that person knows to expect a tough conversation in advance.
Reach out to them and ask if they have a few minutes to chat later that day about the meeting earlier (or wherever it was that the issue took place—be it in person or over email), or if you’re still fuming, later in the week. Unless you’re dealing with the most self-involved person ever, chances are they know what you want to talk about—and will be amenable to clearing the air. In fact, they might feel a bit guilty already.
3. Avoid Starting the Conversation by Assuming the Worst
You could easily start a conversation with this person by saying, “You made me look bad in front of everyone and I hope you get fired for it.” And if you do, you’ll probably end up in a screaming match that results in neither of you feeling great about anything.
So when the conversation rolls around, try to assume the best, at least at the beginning. There’s no guarantee this approach will work, but it will absolutely be a much more productive conversation than it would be if you tried playing the blame game.
When you sit down with your co-worker, make it your default to put things in terms of how they made you feel, rather than what you noticed he or she did. Try statements like, “I felt like my work was being diminished because of the way you communicated my role in our project” or “I felt like the scapegoat when you blamed me in the meeting for the design delay.” For most people, hearing how their actions affected you is much more powerful than being reprimanded.
Think about it: The former puts them in your shoes and the latter puts them on the defensive.
It’s never fun to get thrown under the bus at work. But when it happens to you, don’t jump to conclusions. There’s a decent chance that colleague of yours didn’t mean for it to happen that way. And even if it was malicious, you’ll feel much better about the entire situation if you confront it head on. Odds are the person’s less likely to do it again if it means having a grown-up conversation about it.