Invest in Scapegoats -- Tactic #19

Now we come to what is considered by some to be the most repulsive of all political tactics -- the scapegoating of subordinates.  This is a maneuverer's tactic, much more so than a street fighter's.  Street fighters use the force of their personalities in their political battles, where maneuverers are more subtle.  All the master maneuverers I personally know, are masters of scapegoating.

"When a problem develops, you dive down.  I go up."

This advice was perhaps the closest I ever came to understanding what happens in the head of the maneuverer when he or she plays this card.  Looking at if from my somewhat more moralistic viewpoint, it appears to be a shameless shucking of blame, allowingthe crap fall on the heads and shoulders of innocent and semi-innocent others instead.  I could never do it -- not because I didn't understand the tactic, but simply because it seemed so wrong.

You may have a different sense of right and wrong.  Or maybe circumstances make the act of scapegoating less repugnant.  For whatever reason, if you're going to do it, you should employ the tactic wisely and correctly.

There are two keys to successful scapegoating -- timing and selection of the "goat".  From a timing standpoint, the earlier in a project, the better.  I'd advise you to start planning a scapegoat as a back-up plan for any high risk project or action.  And I'd put the scapegoat in place as soon as you see the first small indications of trouble.

What do I mean by "put in place"?  Specifically maneuver the scapegoat into a position where they are responsible for the thing at risk.  Make them the project manager, if it is a project.  Make them the sponsoring manager, if it is an acquisition.

Yes, you're certainly giving up the opportunity to take the lion's share of the credit for success (should such an unlikely event occur).  If the project succeeds, however, you will still share in the glory, perhaps just not taking center stage.  If the project fails, you will have distanced yourself sufficiently as to not get too much mud on you.  It's an insurance policy -- take it out when you develop a sniffle, not when you are on life support -- by then it costs too much, and the patient is likely to die anyway.

Selecting the right scapegoat can be an art in itself.  A requirement for success is for the "goat" to be your subordinate, and for them to be acknowledged in the organization as "good" and "a good fit".

Why a subordinate?  Because anyone else is likely to cast all blame for any failing back toward you as the project goes down the tubes.  It could still happen with a subordinate, but it's less likely, particularly if you put them in place blindly.  By that I mean, they don't realize why they are actually there -- as a buffer between you and failure.  You achieve this by stroking their egos, and painting a rosy picture of the future that goes along with success of the project.  For the "goat" the project becomes an opportunity, not a risk.  I've seen scapegoats forced into the role fully aware of what is happening, and they tend to be much less tractable, although it can work if you have just the right touch with the "goat".

Why a good employee?  Because chucking a poor performer at the issue is a very obvious attempt to escape blame.  Besides, conventional wisdom says you should put your best people on your biggest challenges.  Anything less looks suspicious.  The problem with this strategy is you may very likely have to sacrifice the employee.  When it comes down to a failure -- it is likely to either be him or you (although sometimes it can be both of you, if you stayed too close).  You have to be ready to let that employee go fairly early, and be prepared to toss another body or two under the wheels, too, if necessary.

Long term ramifications are huge -- you deplete your talent pool, and develop a bad reputation among your subordinates by using the tactic.  Oddly, I've seen it repeatedly used as standard operating procedure, or even applauded, at the highest levels of corporations -- a place rife with maneuverers.

As the pinnacle of the political maneuverer's tactical options, Scapegoating is a must for any corporate politician with an eye on the top job.