(I recently became quite fascinated with the dynamics and damaging effects of scapegoating. Unlike my more positive blog posts, this one exposes the darker side of leadership, and people in general.)
Denial leads to Defamation
People are generally motivated to cultivate and defend a positive self-image (Greenwald, 1980). One common way that people protect their self-image, especially when threatened, is to blame other people and/or external circumstances for their failures in order to avoid having to admit the painful truth that they are responsible for an undesirable outcome (Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Bradley, 1978; Miller, 1976; Snyder & Higgins, 1988; Zuckerman, 1979).
Nobody likes to admit their flaws or mistakes, but when the stakes are high, and one’s reputation is on the line, desperate leaders will often resort to the act of scapegoating in order to separate themselves from the uncomfortable feelings of shame and/or guilt.
What is Scapegoating?
Scapegoating is a hostile social – psychological 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; s/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.
Targets of scapegoating are typically blindsided and feel completely helpless in defending themselves against often vicious and/or highly discrediting accusations. The immediate response is shock and disbelief, followed by a cocktail of fear, uncertainty, and paranoia.
Initially, they may ask themselves some of the following questions:
– What could I have done to invite (deserve) such a situation?
– How can I defend myself without looking like I am trying to defend myself?
– How many people have been exposed to this slander? Will they believe it?
– Who can I trust now?
– What must people think of me?…Who am I?
– Will I ever recover from this?
After a decent amount of time and reflection, they may ask themselves:
– How can I prevent this type of thing from happening in the future?
– What have I learned about myself as a result of this trauma?
– How can I support others who have been targeted?
– How can I educate others on the potentially long-term damaging effects (PTSD, anxiety, trust issues, repeating the behavior with others)?
How does Scapegoating spread?
According to a study called “Blame Contagion: The Automatic Transmission of Self-Serving Attributions“, researchers from USC and Stanford stated the following findings:
– “When we see others protecting their egos, we become defensive too…”
– “We then try to protect our own self-image by blaming others for our mistakes, it only feels good (relieves us) in the moment.”
– “Anyone can become a blamer, but there are some common traits. Typically, blamers are more ego defensive, have a higher likelihood of being narcissistic, and tend to feel chronically insecure.”
– “Blaming becomes common when people are worried about their safety.”
– “There is likely to be more blaming going on when people feel their jobs are threatened.”
– “Blame creates a culture of fear, and this leads to a host of negative consequences for individuals and for groups.”
And, they found…
Self-worth is the antidote to Blame
– “Another experiment found that self-affirmation inoculated participants from blame. The tendency for blame to spread was completely eliminated in a group of participants who had the opportunity to affirm their self-worth.”
– “By giving participants the chance to bolster their self-worth we removed their need to self protect though subsequent blaming.”
Tips for Dealing with Scapegoating
Scapegoating can occur in business, friendship, romantic relationships, and families. When the Authentic Self is wrongly attacked, and its integrity called into question, this can be an extremely devastating experience. The task of separating the projected lies and accusations from the reality you know to be true is difficult when you are experiencing a rush of emotions.
– Separate yourself from the source(s) of the scapegoating if possible.
– Do your best to surround yourself with people who will remind you of who you really are.
– Write lists of facts that will pull you out of the ‘story’ that has been created by others.
– Keep the situation confined to only close and trusted friends and family.
– Seek the support of a coach or mental health professional if needed.