Scapegoating is a nasty habit but nevertheless one which we are all capable of.

Organisations frequently call me for help with difficulties which centre around the less desirable facets of human behaviour. Bullying and harassment are two examples. These are fairly extreme, generally easy to identify and most organisations have a clear code of conduct and protocols for dealing with complaints.

Just as troubling, and usually less visible, are the range of behaviours that can be even more damaging to the smooth running of the organisation. While bullying harms individuals and can indirectly bring an organisation into disrepute, only in extreme cases does it actually harm productivity noticeably (though it harms people sometimes irreparably).

When times are hard

One of the more ‘natural’ and less visible behaviours that regularly occurs is the phenomenon known as scapegoating. Most groups and many individuals naturally incline towards this habit, usually without even realising it. It becomes particularly likely when organisations are going through change and/or when morale is low.

Scapegoating is a naturally occurring aspect of human behaviour. It is widespread and, left unchecked, quickly causes anxiety and misery. It is often a response to insecurity or uncertainty though ironically it aggravates both. It can occur in virtually any social context or group: schools, the family and organisations, Whole nations may be scapegoated, as recent global events have shown.

Though the phenomenon is natural and can be highly destructive, it can be checked and contained if we are individually aware of it. Once we spot the behaviour in ourselves and recognise it for what it is (an insidious habit that can taker us over), we can change the behaviour. When we notice that other members of the group are acting in this way we can simply refuse to join in.

Scapegoating defined

“Scapegoating is a hostile psycho–sociological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group. It is also a practice by which angry feelings and feelings of hostility may be projected, via inappropriate accusation, towards others. The target feels wrongly persecuted and receives misplaced vilification, blame and criticism; he is likely to suffer rejection from those who the perpetrator seeks to influence. Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from ‘approved’ enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. Distortion is always a feature.” (The Scapegoat Society)

Scapegoating and bullying

In extreme cases there is a link between scapegoating and bullying. Since scapegoating is a “cognitive mechanism for ascribing blame to others” (Randall 2001), where an individual is targeted and where the behaviour persists it is but a small step for it to be defined as bullying.

Even where the person(s) doing the scapegoating may not realise it, the victim may feel seriously harassed. It is worth remembering too, that simply ‘doing nothing’ may be all that is necessary for scapegoating to flourish in a group.

Faceless targets

Faced with uncertainty during periods of organisational change, people will often target part of the system (which they perceive as being responsible for their discomfort).

Individual managers, management teams, ‘the big boss’, director or other authority figure will do. Even Prime Ministers get their fair share. The beauty of this course is that it absolves us from doing anything about our own feelings and also places any remedy outside our control. This sort of blaming has its roots in the normal range of human stress-responses.

© Barry Winbolt 2004

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.