Radiating New Signals to Break Free of the Scapegoat Status
People want explanations for things that go wrong. When they can’t point to facts, some choose an easy victim to take the blame. Or, when they feel insecure, they project their own perceived weaknesses onto someone else to improve their self-esteem. If you have a sensitive demeanor or show vulnerabilities more than others, you could be at risk for becoming a scapegoat. Conversely, you may be a very confident person who is viewed as mentally capable of taking the blame. Perhaps you’ve been the scapegoat in your own family. A scapegoat is the person who is unjustly blamed (in the form of criticism, gossip, verbal abuse, intimidation, or even physical abuse) for negative events or circumstances. If you feel scapegoated, here are some tips for breaking the cycle:
Recognize the emotions behind scapegoating. You didn’t become a scapegoat by accident- you were chosen. The person psychologically attacking you through exclusion or negative criticism of your work needs for you to remain a victim. They need to project their own inadequacies onto you to reduce their pain. Recognize you will need to develop strategies based on observing patterns, responding, and repeating behaviors that alleviate the dysfunction. The person assigning blame to you is reinforced for your scapegoat status. They reduce internal pain and gain an elevated sense of self-worth by lowering your status in the group. Don’t let them continue rewarding themselves at your expense.
Practice deflection. Avoid being defensive, to the point of ignoring the behavior. Don’t give the person the enjoyment of getting into a petty back and forth exchange of words. “I/we hear what you are saying,” is a neutral response that may diffuse the person. Let the person go on and berate, with little reaction. This may actually throw them off and pacify them. Deflect attention away from your discomfort as much as possible. If you did contribute to the deficiencies, own up to it and reinforce that this is a learning opportunity to move forward as a team.
Gain strength through relationships. Find strength in other people to disarm the person scapegoating you. S/he can’t scapegoat everyone because then it becomes clear who really has the problem. Your best bet is to find some sympathetic peers who may even stand up for you. “This wasn’t about Jessica. It was about waiting until the last minute to make the final revisions. That’s why the product had so many errors and the client rejected it. We need to plan better as a team.”
Relatedly, assess your peer relationships. Do you surround yourself with the slackers or the high achievers in the office? The complainers, or the doers? Your comfort zone may be working against you, opening you up to scapegoating. It is easier to target a satisfactory, yet marginal contributor than one who is known to rise to the occasion and give it their best. The optimal performer with the winning attitude is harder to manipulate. The assigner of blame wants to feel in full control of their situation. Don’t give them that privilege. Put up a shield from the beginning through hard work, dedication, and perseverance, and make an effort to network and connect with likeminded people.
Create new communication patterns. Once you are the target of scapegoating, separate yourself from this toxicity. Focusing on yourself sometimes requires you to put up boundaries. To avoid making others feel uncomfortable, take the person aside and explain how you felt when they blamed you for the deficiencies. State that you desire constructive criticism, but do not want to be disrespected. Recommend a team debrief to identify ways to mitigate risk and generate solutions. This person may just be in sore need of leadership development, but in the interim, make it clear it is important to have respectful communications.
When the project comes back to the team marked up in red comments to ‘try again’ or as a total ‘no go,’ and people start whispering when you walk in the room, there’s a chance you’re being scapegoated. In severe workplace bullying, the person attributing blame to you for perceived setbacks may enlist others to gang up on you. It can become a hostile work environment very quickly, even for subtle forms of scapegoating that aren’t easily observed (excluding you from communications, looking you up and down to make you feel intimidated). Radiate new signals- proactively find a strategy that’s right for you to improve the workplace climate and your status within it.