Understanding the danger of Scapegoating

I’ve worked with numerous teams over the years where team members were absolutely sure that if Jack left, the team would function marvellously. So Jack is hounded out and for a couple of weeks all is well and then lo and behold, people realise Jack wasn’t the problem at all because the problems they were blaming him for still exist.
When poor old Jack decides he has had enough and leaves, discord in the team may even escalate now he isn’t around to take the flack. Team members are quite likely to now turn on one another as their focal point (Jack) is no longer there and so tension increases.

Definition: Scapegoating is the practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment.

There are a couple of options available to leaders if someone has recently left an organisation under the ‘problem employee’ classification; where everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief and yet just a short time later, the same problems arise:

  • Option 1: The leader can now take the easy option, do nothing and wait for someone else to be assigned the role. In other words, rinse and repeat.
  • Option 2: The leader could decide to get to the root cause of what’s gone on (particularly if it has happened before)  to find out what the real underlying issues are which are not being dealt with.

Why do leaders/teams need a scapegoat? Finding a scapegoat gives the leader or team a way of explaining failures or poor outcomes without the need to look in the mirror or to face unsettling home truths.

Signs of scapegoating. One person in the team will be the victim of verbal abuse either in public or behind their back. They will be the subject of gossip; they may face exclusion from events or meetings and even be given the dreaded silent treatment in lunch-rooms.

The cost of scapegoating: Nothing gets sorted Nothing changes Another poor soul will take their place Misery abounds Mental health/absenteeism/safety/productivity will all be affected

Option 2: Decide to take action just in case Jack wasn’t the problem

  1. As a leader of a team where someone has left in such a fashion, find the courage to listen to what happened from their point of view. You may not agree with them, but it is vital that you listen and they feel heard. Scapegoating doesn’t happen in isolation, everyone in the team played a part in what happened, including you the leader.
  2. Seek a professional mediator. This is not an easy option but it is a VITAL option. A professional mediator – someone who has no vested interest – will be able to create a safe space for every member of the team to talk through the inner workings of the team. The good, bad and the ugly. A professional mediator will then make recommendations for ensuring that no member of a team is treated this way ever again. The problem may be a recruiting issue; it may be an induction issue; it may be a promotional issue – someone promoted beyond their capabilities. It may simply be a communication issue where genuine performance discussions don’t happen and/or systems are not checked so finding someone to blame seems easier OR it may have become a habit. I’ve even worked with a couple of teams where they openly say ‘Let’s see how long the new person lasts’. Not finding out is a recipe for ongoing heartache and stress all round. There are no winners in this situation, not even the ones who have been focusing on the scapegoat so they don’t have to look at their own inadequacies. And we ALL have inadequacies.

What to do if YOU have been made a scapegoat.
Scapegoating isn’t dissimilar to bullying. It has all the hallmarks and all the heart-breaking outcomes. The victims will be feeling miserable; their confidence will be shot; their self-belief will be in tatters.

My advice if you feel you’ve been made a scapegoat is to invest in some counselling. YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME. You have simply been the victim of a dysfunctional team or an inadequate leader.

Some thoughts for you: Only accept your own part in what happened – and somewhere along the way you WILL have played a part. Acknowledge your own learnings so you don’t have to go through that process ever again but remember, all the rest of what happened, belongs elsewhere Congratulate yourself for escaping the situation. No job is worth your mental health Don’t waste your time trying to convince such people otherwise – they want to find someone to blame. THEY are the problem not you Surround yourself with people who support you Remember to be kind to yourself. Value yourself 100%.

Ann Andrews CSP
CSP. Author, speaker, profiler, Life Member PSANZ

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