Feeding Our Scapegoats

goatThe term scapegoating refers to the sometimes-hostile social-psychological discrediting routine by which individuals push blame and responsibility from themselves and toward a target person or group.

All it takes is one look around in media, on the internet, in our own lives, and we can see it. As you also know, I use a lot of what I write for my own introspection, and I too have loaded the proverbial scapegoat from time to time and sent him to the desert to die. Humans have a capacity to attribute cause externally, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that we seek to blame others. Individuals have a need to find reasons for an event, and this leads sometimes to poorly thought-out conclusions and holding others responsible.

Observations in several of the studies I researched shared similar observations. Tell me if you have seen the pattern before in your organization: A lack of support for dissent; the role of dissenter is concentrated in one or two individuals; there is shared conflict between the management and the dissenting parties that exhibits mutual impatience, insistence, isolation, and subtle (and sometimes direct) labels.

Potential scapegoats in the workplace are targeted and finally excluded from the work environment. Scapegoating is a form of bullying; it is unfair, unethical, and in the right context, illegal.  Scapegoating is a powerful device that is dragged out by the unenlightened daily, as they seek to externalize the reasons for why things go wrong.  Someone or something always has to be the cause, doesn’t it?

The relatively obvious negatives to scapegoating involve the failure to find the real cause of certain issues facing the team. Oakley and Krug, in Enlightened Leadership (1993) illustrate that this reaction runs counter to the actual need of the organization or team.  Instead of wasting valuable resources on seeking “blame”, organizations should concentrate on understanding the history that got them to that place by way of analysis, and then focus resources on finding solutions. Scapegoating does not solve the problem, but just makes certain individuals feel “better” about the situation.

This also goes to the heart of concepts like the Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) where instead of focusing on who to blame, we consider what things came together to create the mess we happen to now have to deal with.

But it is a bigger problem than just workplace issues.  Everything you see or hear these days that involves a “mistake” requires someone to pay for it.  If a firefighter does something stupid at a fire station, not only is he expected to “get it”, but the public wants the Chief to pay as well. If a paramedic gives the wrong medication, the trolls pile on to say that the medic and by association, everyone else, must pay.

This doesn’t stop here though, and like I said, I’m just as guilty as anyone else.  The problem is that sometimes in our rush to find the culprit and burn them at the stake, we fail to consider that not everything happens as a result of one action or inaction.  Again, going back to HFACS, there may be an entire chain of events that conspired to create the perfect condition for an accident to occur, that on any other day, would not have come together.

Likewise, none of us are perfect, and even the best among us at what it is we do have the potential to walk into that “Perfect Storm” sometime and be the one left holding the bag.  Criticism is fine until you are on the receiving end.

There is a belief that evil is lurking around every corner and the only thing standing between civilization and disorder is our valiant efforts at public service.  The reality is that at zero-dark-thirty, when you are having trouble focusing and your bladder is about to burst because you didn’t have time before you left the station to hit the head, and this drunk spouse is screaming at you to do something, there MIGHT be the opportunity for distraction, inattention, or simply not reaching far enough into the drug box, producing the wrong med, and administering it. Or not seeing the kid running out from between the parked cars. Or not doing a full 360 and missing the person jumping from the third floor window.  It’s not black and white, evil or good.  Sometimes things happen and it’s not that there was good intent or bad intent, it just happens.

I know officers who simply must find a whipping boy; someone, someone, is going to PAY for what went wrong.  It is a necessary thing for some people. And this doesn’t excuse the lazy, malevolent, or clueless from their contributions to the problem, either.  It’s just that we have become a society of blame; we are victims and someone is to blame for the things that go wrong.  Perhaps instead of looking for blame, we should accept that perhaps not everyone was doing their job, or maybe didn’t have enough sleep, or didn’t understand the directions, and instead, work to FIX the problem.

When an ambulance catches on fire, maybe we should say to ourselves, “What happened?” and “How can we keep this from happening again?” instead of “Who was responsible?” When someone hits a live victim with a fire truck at an aircraft crash, instead of thinking “vehicular homicide”, maybe the first thing we should be thinking about is the huge weight that must be on this driver’s shoulders, having struck someone while negotiating through total chaos and fire and a blanket of foam.  We can’t always control our surroundings or the events that lead to us being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Our need to extract a pound of flesh from everyone who has wronged us has become more and more burdensome.  It goes beyond the legal system; Don’t blame the lawyers, because like it or not, they survive because we keep them in business.  If the market wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be making the money they do.  Each of us, every one of us, is cause for this global mentality.  We have to accept that we are humans and we, like every other human, are fallible and we should expect that others are as well.

Consider the next time that you make a sweeping statement about anything anyone has done, and consider what our need to assign blame costs us.  While there are plenty of people who contribute to our world’s problems through selfishness, greed, inconsiderate behavior, and laziness, I would like to assume most people are good and want to do the right thing.  If we can start believing this, one at a time, maybe we can change.

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