Organizations need scapegoats to take responsibility for failures

scapegoat

Published on 23rd January, 2015, in The Economic Times

In ancient Greece, whenever there was famine or epidemic, a criminal or a disabled person, known as the pharmakos, would be cast out of the community. In ancient tribes of Israel, it was common to drive away a goat, known as azazel, with a noose round its neck, deeming it the carrier and container of the sins of the community. Thus purification of the village, or tribe, took place in a ritual way. This was clearly irrational – the pharmakos or azazel was not responsible for the problem. Yet by casting him away, the community felt cleansed, renewed and invigorated. It feels unfair when we consider the victim’s point of view but it makes great sense when you see the beneficiaries’ point of view.

For all talk of measurability and rationality, modern corporations make great use of scapegoats. Someone has to be blamed for a mistake. We need to identify the cause of a problem and get rid of it, and start afresh. It all sounds logical, if one is ready to get to the root cause of the problem. But in fast moving organisations, where we need results fast, we have no time for root cause analysis. And so we focus on symptoms, and find someone or the other to blame and take action accordingly.

The scapegoat is usually the weakest link in the chain – the criminal in case of Greeks and goat in case of Israelites, someone who really has no voice. Thus in many organisations the external partner or the vendor is to blame for the problem. Not the procurement department whose bonus depended on bringing down cost, not the quality control whose demands for paperwork bordered on the ridiculous, not the finance department which delayed payment, not the auditor who loved playing inspector and was not bothered of the results. So vendors are changed, but the problem continues. But by the time we discover the problem has resurfaced, we have a new CEO to deal with who does not know that this has happened before. So once again the scapegoat is punished and the root of the problem festers.

Many leaders use scapegoats to deflect accusations of lack of competency. They hire people in senior positions not to do a job, but to become the focal point of an inevitable failure. The CEO of an online health portal realized too late in the day that the assumptions of his business plan, that had impressed the investors, were wrong. Failure was inevitable. So he hired a sales head and gave him the task of executing the ‘brilliant’ plan. The sales head realised soon enough that the plan given to him was ‘far from brilliant’. He tried to raise his voice but was silenced. When the results came, everyone blamed the implementer not the strategist. No one questioned the strategist. The CEO thus survived. He had calculated that even investors would never admit to the error in strategy they had themselves approved of and invested in.

Leaders also use scapegoats a lot to protect those who matters to them. An innocent third party of no consequence is often punished to save someone close. It is seen as expression of loyalty. But it also earns us loyal followers, for the one who is saved becomes beholden to the saviour. The one who is not sacrificed becomes the slave, eternally grateful to the saviour. Thus a tribe of loyal followers is created – a corporate fiefdom.

In family-owned companies it is easy to declare overpaid professionals as scapegoats by pointing to their salary and questioning return on investment. When someone is made accountable without empowerment, he needs to know that he is being set up. A leader needs to be aware that people hate taking blame for failures. For they fear taking responsibility will result in loss of power and maybe even termination of employment. And so it is best to not take responsibility and find scapegoats who can be blamed.

Leaders have to ask themselves if they are creating ecosystems where people wish to nurture scapegoats for their survival. They have to keep checking if people being blamed are merely scapegoats or root cause. That is not easy for it means deep investigation and insight, demanding time, which is in short supply in the impatient corporate world.