Scapegoating and Leadership

Guest Blogger: Ken Byler, Owner, Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC

Why would any leader want to play the victim or create victims? How does feeling sorry for ourselves and blaming others become a default position for so many? The simple answer? It’s human nature and it works – at least for a time.

Scapegoating Defined

The word “scapegoat” has its origins in an ancient Jewish ritual described in the book of Leviticus. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest laid hands on a goat, pronouncing all the sins of the Jewish people onto this unsuspecting animal, who was then beaten and driven away into the desert wilderness. The people’s corporate sins were thus transferred to an unsuspecting third party.

While the term “scapegoat” may trace its roots to this practice, the need for being a victim and creating victims is hardwired into our human behaviors. We all inherently know how to compare, compete, even conspire against others. It’s a vicious cycle.

The Remedy

The practice of scapegoating is still prevalent in corporate America, politics, and even religious institutions. Leaders and team members are often more concerned about who’s to blame for mistakes or bad decisions than actually correcting them. Everyone suffers in these situations.

There are ways to move beyond scapegoats to create cultures where accountability and engagement can thrive.

Embrace failure. Innovation requires some level of failure, often repeated disappointments. Employees need to know they can take risks and move beyond their comfort zones. It should be okay to fail, provided the lessons learned are used for growth and improvement.

Accept responsibility. Scapegoating can only thrive in environments where personal responsibility and accountability aren’t encouraged or enforced. President Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with people who disagreed with his positions on many issues. Even political rivals sat on his cabinet. Yet, when unpopular decisions were needed, he accepted responsibility.

Share the credit. Better yet, deflect the credit for success. Don’t be threatened by the achievements of others. Do what you can to create an environment where individuals can succeed without worrying that their efforts won’t be acknowledged.

It is uncomfortable reflecting on our own shortcomings. That is why we often attribute them to others.

The practice of scapegoating isn’t a solution, it’s a form of validation.

We want to believe we are righteous, that our pain is justified. We often long for others to feel that pain as deeply as we do.

Perhaps it is time to stop projecting and do more reflecting instead. Acknowledge the way we feel and the power those feelings have over us. Resist the need to control our environment and shape our narratives. Can we forgive the darkest parts of ourselves, lament what we fail to confess, forgive, and release it all?

More importantly, can we admit that the scapegoating cycle will probably show up again?

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Filed in: Client News