Personal Growth

Workplace Scapegoating

Rebecca had been stoically enduring a manager who was routinely scapegoating her. She had been his punching bag as he consistently blamed her for his mistakes, as he externalised his own shortcomings by projecting them on to her.

We know that one of the hallmarks of emotionally intelligent and successful people is their ability to personify individual accountability. Accountability looks like this:

  1. We swiftly take responsibility for a transgression, major or minor.
  2. We are quick to apologise.
  3. We ‘own up’ and admit that we got it wrong.
  4. We ‘self-correct’ and make sure we don’t repeat the same mistake.

When these actions do not occur and accountability goes missing, we end up with the experience of scapegoating. If left unchecked, scapegoating spreads to create workplaces embedded in distortion, incivility and disrespect. Such toxic cultures destroy businesses. We know that people leave bad managers or colleagues, they don’t leave bad jobs. And as we also know, high staff turnover kills profitability.

The bully attempts to gain power from an external source because they can’t draw on their own

Workplace scapegoating is a subtle form of bullying whereby a person tries to raise their own status by attempting to lower the status of their target.  It is an attempt to gain power from an external source because the insecure bully cannot draw on their own.  In the playground, bullying can very often take the form of physical violence. In the workplace it is altogether more understated.

In an adult environment, scapegoating looks like:

  1. Blame. Externalising the issue and making it about the other person, the system, the reaction, the interpretation and so on.
  2. Shame. Belittling or minimising the problem or person so that a false sense of superiority is upheld.
  3. Sabotage. Deliberating creating roadblocks or issues that will affect a team member’s ability to do their work.
  4. Exclusion. Building cliques and factions and excluding the target from them, or even firing the person because ‘they are too much trouble’ or ‘they don’t fit in’.

Most of us have fallen prey to the workplace scapegoater due to the prevalence of the behaviour. So why is scapegoating so common? Because people are doing what they have been taught and they simply don’t know any better.

Scapegoating behaviours, both the receiving and giving of, are usually a response to the disempowerment of childhoods that are shame and fear based. People borne from these environments are on a life-long mission to reclaim the power that has been denied them, either in a positive way by active and focused self-development and the building of a stronger self, or in negative ways by ‘stealing’ power from others and building a superficial self.

Because scapegoating is ultimately about the misuse of power, the issue is exacerbated in the workplace because of the presence of artificial power structures. Rebecca’s boss was the owner of the business, giving him the position power to do, within reason, almost anything.

Why Do We Get Scapegoated?

The subtle catch in this scenario is that the target of the scapegoater has been chosen for a specific reason. Scapegoats are the ones with a natural empathy and sensitivity to others and are more psychologically healthy than the scapegoater. Scapegoats have the most reserves of natural power, and so are drawn upon to provide the source of power for others. Over time, they learn to give their power away and are weakened, unless they speak up, take action and get out.

It’s an elaborate game. Scapegoats learn to give their power away so that others feel better. They very often accept the role of scapegoat in order to keep the peace and maintain the illusion of normalcy.

At work this will look like:

  1. Never progressing beyond the willing apprentice.
  2. Always being the capable number 2 and making the boss look good.
  3. Compliant behaviour, not rocking the boat.
  4. The routine good natured acceptance of being passed up for that promotion or pay rise.

As the scapegoat becomes imbued with these behaviours, they will wonder why they never reach their full potential. They will wonder why they can’t convert that sale, why they can’t speak up in meetings, why they can’t challenge others, why they can’t ultimately be successful. It is because in this great energy matrix we call the world, they become patterned to receive that experience, like a computer operating system efficiently delivering its programmed outcomes and results.

3 Tips to Free You From Scapegoating Behaviours

How do you free yourself from the experience? Here are 3 strategies to help you break the pattern.

  1. Awareness. Understand the role you are playing. Are you the scapegoat or the scapegoater? Take time to stop and think. Be honest, be reflective and go within, find those pain points and gently engage them for they are the key to your freedom and empowerment.
  2. Assistance. For either role, get help, ideally from a professional, or a trusted friend or colleague. Increase your understanding of the issue through reading, seminars and information. Find out all you can. More current and truthful information helps you to replace old patterns and lay down new ones.
  3. Amplify. Speak out. Confront the scapegoater, take accountability or apologise to the scapegoat. Take action. As a scapegoat, if you can’t find a resolution, leave. Decide that you will no longer draw this experience to you.

And Rebecca? After 5 years in the job and countless confrontations, she resigned. She’s now in a new job that bears no resemblance to the old. All the energy it took to manage her old boss is now diverted into healthy pursuits. She has embarked on an exercise regime, taken up new hobbies and is continuing to be coached, to ensure she never again falls in the role of scapegoat.

Right use of power and right apportioning of accountability is a feature of a mature and healthy business.  Make a decision today to do your part, as the only way change can happen is from within, from a singular decision and commitment to do better. It takes constant vigilance and it is the responsibility of everyone. As Ellen DeGeneres would say “be kind to each other’’, it really is the best starting point.