How Workplaces Can Avoid Scapegoating (Conflict Management)

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I was subjected to a form of bullying in junior high that felt a lot like scapegoating; where a party is singled out for unmerited negative treatment or blame. The experience is still a vivid memory.

Workplaces aren’t immune to the temptations of scapegoating. Individuals or groups are often unfairly blamed for an executive’s shortcoming or company mistake. The impact of these efforts to project problems on others is devastating. Employees may be embarrassed or become obsessed with avoiding risk or errors. Minority groups are frequently the target of anger or injustice. Scapegoating sets a dangerous precedent.

If you uncover scapegoating in your organization, what should you do? Here are possible actions:

  • Examine what is going on; the history, background, and context of the situation.
  • Ask the identified person exhibiting scapegoating behaviors what he or she is trying to achieve.
  • Understand what is going on between the person who is scapegoating and the victim.
  • Be clear that the scapegoating behavior has been exposed and will not be tolerated.

Preventing scapegoating involves leaders holding people accountable while also engaging them at a high level. It includes:

  • Embracing mistakes. Innovation and changing market conditions will result in failures. When everyone is aware that new ideas won’t be judged solely on success rates, the need for scapegoating is diminished.
  • Taking personal responsibility. The easiest way to slow or stop scapegoating is to acknowledge your culpability when things go awry. As a leader, you will make bad decisions and act poorly at times; just don’t deflect the blame. President Lincoln appointed political rivals to his cabinet and welcomed their differing viewpoints. He also refused to let them take responsibility for unpopular decisions; that was his job.
  • Sharing the credit. Don’t view the success of team members as a threat. That way you won’t try to steal the headlines when they do something worth celebrating. President Harry Truman is quoted as saying. “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

In society or business, there will always be persons or groups willing to practice scapegoating. As political discourse and cultural differences evolve, you may experience scapegoating from someone who disagrees with you.

When we acknowledge that scapegoating is a psychological relief for our own fears and shortcomings, only then we will have the courage to change our approach.

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Ken Byler is Principal and Founder of Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC, a Souderton, Pennsylvania firm that has provided leadership training, coaching, and facilitation services since 2002. He is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, and PXT Select™ all registered trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.