A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 20th, 2012 by William

The Fine Art of Witch Hunting

Last week my post dealt with the practice of plausible deniability (euphemistically called accountability) and the Scapegoat Mechanism−the management practice of singling out an individual, or group as the source of a problem and then the subsequent punishment of that person, or group. This week I want to cover the process leading up to the Scapegoat Mechanism. By this I mean the process by which the scapegoat is identified and the punishment justified. This process in most organizations is called “witch hunting.” To better understand this think of it this way; scapegoating is the identification (naming) of the target person, or group, and witch hunting is the process of searching for, or creating if necessary the supporting evidence. Sometimes the scapegoat is identified first and other times the result of the witch hunt is the identification of the scapegoat.

Freedictionary.com defines a witch hunt as; an investigation carried out ostensibly to uncover subversive activities but actually used to harass and undermine those with differing views, or; a rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the welfare of the public. The more literal definition of a witch hunt is; a search for evidence of witchcraft or witches. This last definition better reflects how witch hunting applies to the workplace with the key words being “search for evidence.”

Note in the second definition the phrase: “safeguarding the welfare of the public.” Substitute “management,” for “public,” and you have the ultimate goal of witch hunting in the workplace. Recall from last week, where the goal of plausible deniability, or the Scapegoat Mechanism, was the safeguarding, or protecting, of the welfare of management. Witch hunting has the same ultimate goal−deflecting blame from management to some unsuspecting scapegoat so that management remains unscathed regardless of their true culpability.

Just like in the 15th through 18th centuries, when true witch hunts were carried out, accusations are made freely many times without merit and the accused is guilty as charged without any substantive evidence, or trial. The performance review process is, in a way, a witch hunt in that it’s used many times to build a case against an individual using vague, subjective criteria and innuendo so that management will have a reason for eliminate that person should they need a scapegoat.

Most organizations delude themselves by saying that they always focus on “process not people” when “investigating” the root causes of a problem or crises. However, it is truly a “witch hunt” when a person, or group, is the focus of the hunt. You can tell if an organization’s mindset is one of witch hunting when there’s little substantive change in how business is conducted as a result of this rigged problem solving process.

Is your organization fixated on witch hunting? Below are the obvious, and not so obvious, traits of an organization where witch hunting is prevalent:

  • People cc the multitude on all emails as a CYA tactic as there’s generally a lack of trust, or respect, between management and employees
  • People have Blackberry’s so they can monitor email at all hours for fear of being blind-sided and people initiate and respond to emails at all hours to save their skin
  • There’s high turnover especially in management
  • Managers are expected to know micro-details of every project on short notice
  • Management “micromanages’
  • Management preaching that the organization needs to be more “accountable” is heard often
  • The organization is fixated on having a “sense of urgency” in everything it does and there are frequent “panics” whenever a problem arises. This “fire-fighting” mentality precludes people from doing a thorough job
  • The organization has a history of completing critical tasks always at the 11th hour
  • The organization has protected fiefdoms and employees in different departments are considered competitors
  • The organization treats certain people, or groups, as “second class citizens”

Now that you can identify an organization with the propensity to witch hunt let’s understand better the witch hunt mentality?

At the heart of the witch hunt mentality is what’s called the “frustration-aggression hypothesis.” It is a theory proposed by John Dollard, et al. in 1939 and can explain the propensity of management teams to practice witch hunting. The theory says that aggression (finding a person, or group, to blame) is the result of the blocking, or frustrating, of a person’s (i.e., management’s) efforts to attain a goal. Thus the frustration causes aggression, especially when the true source of the frustration cannot be challenged or changed. As a result, the aggression gets displaced usually onto an innocent target.

In the business context goals could mean many things but we could generalize it as “anything dealing with the success of management.” For example; management’s goal of higher revenue and profits, when not met, will frustrate them to the point of finding a person, or group, to blame. Instead of the ‘buck stops here” ethic, the person or group blamed in this example may be the sales department for not bringing in enough orders.

Another example might be when the company’s products are experiencing high failure rates in the hands of the customer, and the production folks are accused of shoddy workmanship and blamed for the failures. In both these cases the real reason may be the product design is shoddy hence why it fails and no one wants to buy it. Of course to solve this requires much soul searching and hard work and admitting to this isn’t as much fun as railroading someone, or group, into being the proxy to take the heat.

It’s hard to survive in an organization where witch hunting is a common practice, as sooner or later you may find yourself the target of the hunt. At the very least living in an organization like this is a stressful situation. My advice is to find another job, hopefully in an organization that addresses reality and management shares accountability and doesn’t need to sacrifice individuals to stay in business.


6 Responses to “The Fine Art of Witch Hunting”
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