Domestic goat smile, Crimea, 2009. By George Chernilevsky. Public Domain

Warn of Problems, Then Become the Scapegoat

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Change Leave a Comment

Hidden high potentials (2HiPo’s) have a significantly higher risk of being scapegoated by teams than do normal people. People with too much going on are irritating and usually seen as a threat, which is why 2HiPo’s also adopt some strange behaviors that serve to obfuscate their high level of capability.

There’s not much that I can see you can do when the group turns on you. I’ve been on the receiving end of this, and have a steady stream of people coming to me who are deep in it. The only real solution is to either leave to something better or to accept your lot in life, suffer, and hope that after you have been punished for their sins that they will let you back in the group.

wasn’t surprised when I came across this commentary by professor J. Richard Hackman inHarvard Business Review, November-December 1994:

Teams that encounter frustrating problems as they are working sometimes attach to a single team member all the negative feelings that are rampant in the group. They make that person to be scapegoat, the one who is responsible for everything that has gone wrong. If that bad actor could just be removed, the thinking goes, the team’s problems would disappear. The impulse to scapegoat someone when the going gets rough can be quite strong; moreover, the scapegoated member often starts to behave in accordance with his or her peers’ expectations, which makes things worse all around.

Not that the original scapegoats give you much hope for the latter. The term comes from Leviticus in the Books of Moses. It’s from a mistranslation of what was supposed to be “given over to Aza’zel” but the meaning is clear. As a part of the Day of Atonement, Aaron would

take the two goats, and set them before the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Aza’zel.

And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza’zel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza’zel….

And when he has made an end of atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat; and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness.

The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness. [from Leviticus 16, RSV]

When groups scapegoat an individual, they need to first lay upon him or her all of the group’s problems, transgressions and shortcomings.

  • “We missed this deadline because you didn’t work hard enough!”
  • “You didn’t come back from lunch early enough and so no one was here to get that important call!”
  • “You should be telling us what to do!”
  • “You shouldn’t be telling us what to do!”
  • etc., etc., etc. …

In order to send their own sins out of the group, they have to send you out of the group. You get cast out.

If any of you have some input as to some techniques to defuse scapegoating as it is happening, chime in. Certainly, Hackman’s recommendation to not start behaving like they expect is solid, but very hard to obey. The social pressure is tremendous, because otherwise the group must face its own self.

Image Credit: Domestic goat smile, Crimea, 2009. By George Chernilevsky, released into Public Domain.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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