Much like a dysfunctional family, a broken company will often single out a scapegoat, or a person to blame, when serious problems arise. Whether it’s inefficient communication or a poor third quarter, channeling the collective anxiety onto a single employee enables the company to protect itself from emotional upheaval. By shaming and sacrificing that employee, the company is able to align against a common “enemy,” enabling it to resume day-to-day operations and to seemingly preserve the integrity of the system.
How is a scapegoat chosen? Typically, an outspoken employee who gives voice to issues no one wants to acknowledge or an employee bearing a lot of responsibility will get targeted for blame when things go awry. There is also a higher probability, in companies lacking diversity, that a minority employee will be chosen due to complex unconscious bias. Scapegoating is an unfair practice that only happens in dysfunctional companies, so if you see it taking place, that’s a red flag that things aren’t running smoothly.
In the short-term, scapegoating is an easy solution to restore faith in management or reunite disparate employees. Focusing on the symptoms, picking someone to blame, and taking action accordingly can give the appearance of solving whatever issue arises -- but by not taking the time to analyze the root cause of the problem, scapegoating is just a Band-Aid that ultimately works against the company’s best interest!
Consensual shunning of one employee creates an atmosphere of distrust, demotivating the hardworking employees and causing morale to spiral downwards. This may lead to poor retention, lowered work performance, and an overall hostile work environment. Employees may begin to challenge the leaders’ authority and dispute enforced rules, ultimately leading to disorder and business failure. We all know that a company’s long-term survival depends on many things, including strong leadership and a clear direction -- if either of these are lacking, employees will find themselves working in an environment of uncertainty that fosters an assortment of organizational issues that may turn them against one another.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster! If you want your company to avoid the pitfalls of scapegoating, take time to learn the underlying dynamics of effective team relationships. Things like self-awareness, positive reinforcement, self-advocacy, inclusion, and alliance-building can help a group of individuals work together in a more productive way. Rather than simply firing a problematic employee or reworking a problematic policy, consider the benefit of taking the time to dig into the roots of a problem’s origin to prevent future repetition. If you approach scapegoating as a sign that the company is not working within its value system, real and lasting change can occur. It can be helpful for leaders to reassess the purpose and goals of their business and to communicate these effectively in order to reinvigorate and motivate their employees.
Sure, scapegoating is “the easy way out,” but don’t fall for the lie that it fixes anything!
Written by Krystyl Wright, LCSW