Recent work with a client led to developing these thoughts on the act of scapegoating. 

A natural part of managing unexpected (pervasive and adaptive) changes is pointing at others as the cause of anxiety that a person or a system feels. This is especially true in environments where people trade on their reputation for excellence, competence and accomplishments.

We should expect some scapegoating about the time it seems we hit our stride.

It is almost as if we start watching ourselves move at a new speed and end up tripping. We can't possibly succeed! Someone is to blame for this new way of working we don't yet fully understand or trust!

The trick is to discern whether:

  1. A person is setting themselves up for this role because of their flailing about in looking for someone to blame for their anxiety, and thus the anxiety of the system centers around them.
  2. Or, possibly, the system itself is anxious and starts playing a blame game in order to regain equilibrium. 

In the first scenario, it is often a person who made significant contributions in the past, but change now threatens their standing or competence. They either lead the charge to find a scapegoat (any scapegoat will do), or they become the scapegoat themselves.

In the second scenario, when it is the system that is anxious, it is usually the newcomer, outsider or someone less well known that becomes the focus.

If underlying issues are not addressed, scapegoating moves on to a new victim.

Scapegoating is often subconsciously expressed, rather than a conscious choice. When it becomes a conscious choice to remove the scapegoat, there is often a feeling that getting rid of them will make the problems go away. This is seldom the case. Because the real, underlying issues are not addressed, a new scapegoat is sought, and so on.    

Sometimes a scapegoat must be removed. It simply has become too toxic for them to stay. Sometimes they are completely a part of the problem. Sometimes they are entirely innocent. It doesn’t matter. Their leaving provides opportunity to address the real, underlying issues. But, those underlying issues must be addressed. If not, scapegoating moves on to find a new victim. For example, I've worked in a situation where a software tool was the scapegoat. It represented such anger that the only way forward in some minds was to remove it (and the people who represented it) from the possibilities. Alternatively, those who resented it could have been removed — at least for a time.

Additional background on organizational systems and scapegoating is found all over the internet. Here is one such resource: "The Scapegoat in Organizations," from the ASCE Library forum.

This post originally appeared on Design Group International and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

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About the Author

Mark VincentMark L. Vincent's personal involvement in walking beside leaders and organizations as they build for tomorrow comes from 30 years of business planning, revitalizing organizations, leading complex decision-making scenarios and bringing thought leadership to the intersections where enterprise, values and economics meet.

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Published: 06/19/2018

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