A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 12th, 2012 by William

The Scapegoat Mechanism

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw one of the chapters is devoted to the management practice of plausible deniability. The term refers to the denial of blame by management and the assignment of responsibility (i.e., the blame) to the lower ranks of the organization. You’ll never hear this term in the halls of business. What you will probably hear is the “accountability” mantra. Management teams that practice plausible deniability will preach the need for accountability, and of course it typically doesn’t apply to them. I’ll explain why. In most organizations accountability is a one street. It is applied from top to bottom, from management down to people lower on the organizational ladder. In business plausible deniability and accountability are two sides to the same coin.

Plausible deniability has at its heart what’s called the “Scapegoat Mechanism.” This term was coined by René Girard in his 1986 book; The Scapegoat. As explained by Girard, the “Scapegoat Mechanism” arises when individuals (management), need to find a way to absolve themselves of guilt or blame when something goes awry. Someone or some group is identified as the source of the crisis. This person, or group, is then the scapegoat, i.e., held accountable. This scapegoat then absorbs all the blame from these individuals.

Once the identified victim(s) is eliminated, management is appeased, believing in their collective myth that it was the scapegoat that was the source of their problems.

The point where one person, or group, is singled out as the cause of a problem, or trouble, and is chastised or even expelled (fired or laid-off) is the “Scapegoat Mechanism” in action.

You can also tell when the “Scapegoat Mechanism” is in action when no other process, procedure, or business practice, etc. changes are made in the organization to prevent the problem from happening again−only the elimination of the scapegoat.

Social order is restored as management is content that they have solved the cause of the problem by removing the scapegoated individual. The Scapegoat Mechanism serves as a psychological relief valve for management and helps support their delusion that they are beyond reproach, in control and have held people accountable.

You’ve undoubtedly seen this mechanism in action in the news. When companies are failing, someone in the organization will be targeted as the sacrificial lamb. CEOs are not exempt from the scapegoat mechanism−having been targeted by the board of directors as the reason for the failing. The company will issue a press-release detailing the action taken to eliminate the source of their problems and then paint a rosy picture of how things will be different from then on.

Unfortunately the cycle begins again the next time there’s a problem.

Of course, scapegoating is just not relegated to a management practice. Everyone in the organization practices some form of scapegoating. Have you ever heard people talk of being “thrown under the bus?” This interpersonal game is a close cousin to scapegoating. The game of “Thrown under the Bus” is the everyday practice of scapegoating. In my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I devote a chapter to the practice of throwing people under the bus.

What’s different about throwing someone under the bus and scapegoating is the intensity of the malice. When thrown under the bus, one usually is not expunged from the organization as most often happens when the scapegoat mechanism is in play. The effects are much more subtle. The intent of throwing someone under the bus is their embarrassment, or diminished status in the organization, not necessarily their expulsion.

There’s an old saying; if you want the biggest house in the neighborhood you can achieve it two ways; you can roll up your sleeves and build it, or you can tear everyone else’s house down. This is the mechanism in play when one is thrown under the bus.

Throwing someone under the bus is the favored tactical game in the workplace for people to torpedo perceived competitors, i.e. people vying for the same promotion, pay, prestige, etc. The purpose of throwing someone under the bus is to tarnish them so that they become the first name that comes to mind when management needs a scapegoat.


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