Finding and positioning scapegoats is the art of putting someone between yourself and a potential problem. Many find it to be a morally reprehensible behavior, but few can argue its effectiveness.
While I have avoided using the technique, it has been successfully used on me more than once. I’ve seen it performed enough times to describe it from the perspective of the politician orchestrating the “scapegoating,” as well from the perspective of (hapless) victim in danger of being hit by an as of yet unseen speeding freight train.
How to position a scapegoat
If you are a manager with subordinates, lining up a scapegoat can be as simple as delegating the task to someone who works for you. You can often make this work even over the victim’s protests (assuming they are not politically connected and, hence, dangerous of their own right), although a willing scapegoat – and particularly one who is enthusiastic, at least for a time – is much more desirable.
That being said, putting a subordinate scapegoat in place certainly lacks finesse, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee you’ll escape consequences of a failure. If you go this route, odds are you’ll still feel plenty of heat if the project you’re worried about becomes a disaster.
By far the most important element in setting up scapegoats is to act early. You need to position your scapegoat you first detect there may be a problem with the project/task/job. Preferably before anyone else up the chain of command sees the same thing. Fail to act early and your effort to deflect blame will likely do little beyond adding another body to drown along side you when your personal Titanic sinks.
One thing that will enhance successful “scapegoating” is the transferring of ownership of the project in question to someone outside of your department/business unit/ or work group. A good argument to make this happen is the identification of “special skills” possessed by the target, or simply “too much work” on your part, although you’d better be able to back that one up.
If you’re feeling particularly confident, you can even stand on the shore and throw rocks at the boat you so recently ditched, allowing you to say “I told you so” if and when the project ultimately craters.
Convincing your intended victim to shoulder the burden can vary from simple to nearly impossible, largely dependent on how savvy they are to the scapegoat tactic. My observation: Most victims are easily sold on the “big challenge/big opportunity” argument, but a few will become suspicious when they are approached in this fashion. The bottom line is a big ego with lots of self-confidence are the hallmarks of a ready victim.
How to avoid being positioned
Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.
Being skeptical of anyone trying hard to sell you on taking a project is a good basic defense against being scapegoated. If someone is pushing a project, think long and hard about signing up for it. If you ultimately do accept it, make sure you check out the condition of things (including all the risks) immediately and document it all. When the disaster hits – and it might not, after all, but there is little harm in being careful – those early records just might be your life raft.
The approach can come from above, or even laterally. I’ve never actually seen a subordinate scapegoat someone above them in the organization, but I suppose theoretically it could happen. You should be most careful when dealing with direct supervisors one to three levels above you – they’re in a position to maneuver you most easily.
But don’t discount peers or those higher on the corporate ladder in other divisions, departments, or groups – if they can get you step in front of the bullet they see but you don’t, there is little chance of the blame falling back on them.
The other thing you can do to protect yourself is to become more politically active. Strong connections to people in power will drastically reduce your attractiveness as a target. This doesn’t mean you have to engage in anything you find annoying or offensive, but having friends in high places looking out for you can definitely provide some cover when a “scapegoater” is on the prowl for a victim.
There’s no question in my mind that positioning scapegoats qualifies as a dirty trick. Cowardly, even. Unfortunately, while deplorable, it can work quite well.
You certainly have the right to choose if you will employ the technique. I never had the stomach for it, but that was my call. I’ve known a number of other senior managers that embrace it, and it has definitely helped their careers.
Or at least prevented them from derailing when things went south.
What you don’t have a choice about is being targeted as a victim.
Be vigilant and a little suspicious. If you let your enthusiasm, ego, or self-confidence get in the way, you’ll be an easy mark for the politician maneuvering you into position for possible scapegoating. 30.6
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This is the cover of my latest novel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, released on April 21, 2014. This story marks the return of LEVERAGE characters Mark Carson and Cathy Chin, now going by the name of Matt and Sandy Lively and on the run from the FBI. The pair are working for a remote British Columbia lodge specializing in Corporate adventure/retreats for senior executives. When the Redhouse Consulting retreat goes horribly wrong, Matt finds himself pursuing kidnappers through the wilderness, while Sandy simultaneously tries to fend off an inquisitive police detective and an aggressive lodge owner.
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.