Resource Library Articles

What To Do About Scapegoats!

The whole place was up in arms. This time he’d gone too far – blown a significant prospect with a foolish mistake. How many times has this happened? The rest of the people are getting fed up with it. And as they walk by your door you can see the icy stares; the building frustration is almost palpable. “What are you going to do about this?”, they seem to holler. You know it’s not all his fault, but they’re a lynch mob. You sense that your leadership is on the line.

Every organization, it seems, needs to have a lightning rod, the person everyone loves to blame. At times it’s an individual (“You won’t believe what she did this time!”), and sometimes an entire department (“They always screw up even the simplest things!”).

These scapegoats serve several vital functions: If I focus on the scapegoat, you see, I don’t have to focus on me. And if the scapegoat is perceived as more of a problem than I am, I can excuse my own behavior. He/she is an easy target too, for venting frustration about anything. I mean, why kick the poor dog at home when there’s someone right here with a target painted on his rear?

So it goes. It’s easier to assign blame to the scapegoat than to conduct an honest examination of an issue, a search that might reveal my own weakness or mistake or crime. The scapegoat provides an expedient and simple “answer” to an often complex system dynamic. If I am lazy, naive, simplistic or defensive, scapegoating will have great appeal to me. It’s not that the scapegoat is necessarily innocent (they didn’t earn this label through guiltless performance). The issue is that the scapegoat is used as a smoke screen.

The costs to an organization can be deceptively high. For example:

• The person who scapegoats someone else fails to acknowledge and focus on his/her own weaknesses and poor performance.
• The positive contributions of the scapegoat are lost in his/her eyes as well as in the eyes of others.
• Scapegoating masks what is deficient about the system; critical system issues remain unacknowledged and unresolved.
• The judgments that fuel scapegoating become entrenched over time, creating a sense of hopelessness that anything can ever change.
• Creativity becomes blocked in the scapegoat, and in the system.
• Business decisions may be made based on ways to avoid or circumvent “the problem.”
• The scapegoat quits in humiliation and frustration; the company loses the contributions they may have been making and/or may have made in the future.
• Or the scapegoat remains and continues to lose confidence and productivity, creating a vicious cycle.
• Or the scapegoat is fired and the company loses in the same way. In this scenario, I’ve witnessed the job itself taking on the aura, so that any replacement hired is automatically anointed the successor goat.

So the scapegoat is the tip of the iceberg, what therapists refer to as the “presenting issue”. The crux of the problem and of the solution is systemic. Everyone including the scapegoat is part of the problem. The system itself needs to change. Every person including the scapegoat needs to change. You need to change!

No wonder we’d rather just go on as if…!

Again, this is not intended to be a defense of the targeted person or group. The scapegoat is at least as responsible as anyone else for the situation and for the solution. What is needed is leadership that can spot the dynamics and respond skillfully. Some questions might help, e.g.:

• What is your objective assessment of the scapegoat’s performance?
• How is your objectivity affected by your own history with this person?
• If you don’t believe that this person can “make it”, then why are you retaining him/her? Did you know that the most reliable predictor of a subordinate’s performance is your own expectations as boss?
• What would it look like if you were to develop a more honest and helpful approach with the scapegoat? How would you do that? What would you start doing, or stop doing?
• What challenges do you need to issue to yourself and to others who routinely take part in the bashing?
• What exactly are the scapegoat’s performance issues (task or relationship concerns) that need attention, and how will you coach him/her to improve?
• What are the performance issues of others involved that may be masked by the focus on the scapegoat? How will you address these concerns with them, and challenge them to focus on their own improvement?
• How is your image as a leader affected by your failure to resolve this issue?
• If you are reluctant to tackle any of these suggestions, what is the reluctance about? What do you fear might happen?

Yes, your leadership is at stake, along with your values and your serenity! May you select the right tightrope to walk!

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