Will the Pandemic Create Office Scapegoats?

During times of stress, it’s natural to look for someone to blame. That someone could be a colleague on a work team. Even without a pandemic, there is a common tendency to look for people to reflexively turn on when projects don’t work or financial results aren’t what they should be. How do you avoid that from happening in your office?

I found an article last week on the psychology of scapegoating, including why otherwise reasonable people sometimes go along with it. According to author Sharie Stines, Psy.D, scapegoating is the result of an unhealthy corporate culture: “The culture is usually established by leadership, and if leadership doesn’t put an end to scapegoating, then they are most likely allowing it and even encouraging it. Most of these types of work environments are led by people who promote this type of dysfunction.”

Wondering what office scapegoating is? Stines said it happens when one colleague decides to make a case against another employee with little to no cause, creating an atmosphere of “seriousness and urgency regarding this person.” The group affected by this atmosphere then excludes the scapegoat from its relationships and activities, overreacts to every little thing the scapegoat, or target, does, filtering out the good and magnifying the bad. The people who have fallen prey to the scapegoating culture use only “selective listening” when interacting with the scapegoat.

What kind of training could be provided to avoid the creation of scapegoats in a time of stress? It seems to me that scapegoating is a form of workplace harassment, so that adding a section on it to the harassment training most companies already do would make sense. There is a misconception by many employees that sexual harassment is the only type of harassment. It’s important to offer hypothetical examples in the training, and in conversations with managers, on harassment that takes other forms, including scapegoating.

When you think about it, scapegoating is group bullying. It’s a way to create a human punching bag the group can use to release pent-up anxiety and frustration. What if managers were savvy enough to recognize when scapegoating was beginning to occur, and then skilled enough to immediately squash it? In addition to teaching all employees that scapegoating is a serious form of harassment, managers should receive additional training on what to do when it occurs. Calling a group meeting to openly discuss what’s happening is a first step. Without naming names, to avoid embarrassing the scapegoat, the manager should explain that she has noticed members of the team playing the blame game when work doesn’t turn out well. Then she should share some of her own anxieties and frustrations, going around the room one by one for each employee to share what’s most causing each stress. After everyone has shared their concerns, there might be such a release that the scapegoat, who has also voiced his or her own anxieties, will be revealed to be a red herring—that the real problems have nothing to do with him or her.

The next step is for the manager to find activities to bring the group back together, and to vent together as a team. During times of financial stress like these, work groups often are directed to curtail extras such as team lunches, dinners, and happy hours, but this might be precisely the time when those kinds of gatherings are most needed. Another idea, if everyone in the group is physically able and willing, would be to take an exercise class together, such as yoga or Pilates. Or maybe a lively game of tennis outside would do the trick. Physical exertion, experienced together, can be just the thing to release tension. Another idea, which could be executed in-person or remotely, is playing a game together. Since social distancing with in-person board games is hard to pull off, an electronic game that could be played with phones or computers might be the way to go.

When a group that works together is able to release energy together, the individuals in that group are able to realize that they share objectives and frustrations that are common to everyone in the group—no scapegoats required.