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Scapegoating By Mark L. Vincent

Watch When Succession, Continuity, and Scapegoating Collide

Succession and continuity planning involve pervasive and adaptive change and can also be a time when scapegoating surfaces. 

A natural part of managing change at this level of complexity is anxiety. Anxiety launches people into pointing at others as the cause of their feelings. They point at individuals as well as systems. Anxiousness leading to scapegoating is especially true in environments where people trade on their reputation for excellence, competence, and accomplishments.

Why change out my current success for what is needed for future success? 

  • Someone is moving my cheese! YOU! 
  • If not you, THEM! 
  • No, not me! But THOSE PEOPLE or THAT PERSON! 

Blame Game

And so it goes until the blaming and pointing find someone upon which to focus—often people without resources to defend themselves.

A crisis might seem like the ordinary moment when people blame others, but it often galvanizes blame that is already present and helps it find a new stride. Succession and continuity plans invite thoughtful analysis, but they, too, result in pervasive and adaptive change. Continuity and succession planning are also fertile for scapegoating.

Apply Discernment

We can discern whether:

  1. A person is setting themselves up for the role of scapegoat because of their flailing about in looking for someone to blame for their anxiety, and thus, the fear of the system centers around them.
  2. Or, the system is anxious and starts playing a blame game to regain equilibrium. 

When it is the first of these, it is often a person who made significant contributions in the past, but change now threatens their standing or competence. They lead the charge to find a scapegoat (any scapegoat will do), or they become the scapegoat themselves.

When the system is anxious (#2), the newcomer (successor), outsider, or seemingly divergent person becomes the focus.

Get To the Core Issue

When scapegoating becomes a conscious choice to identify and send the goat away, there is often a feeling that getting rid of them will make the problems disappear. Exiling the goat away seldom brings that relief. Fundamental and underlying issues were not addressed, so a new scapegoat was sought, and so on.  

Sometimes, a scapegoat must be removed. It simply has become too toxic for them to stay. Sometimes, the scapegoat truly is part of the problem. Sometimes, they are entirely innocent. It doesn’t matter. Their leaving provides an opportunity to address real, underlying issues. If not, scapegoating continues with someone new.

Gain Wisdom

Maestro-level leaders recognize how natural scapegoating is. They can expect it to show up, especially when a succession plan moves from planning to action.

They can be the needed non-anxious and stabilizing presence they have learned to be, helping the system find its way through a significant, pervasive, and adaptive season of change. After all, Maestro-level leaders are also a source of the system’s anxiety. If they do not help the organization find its equilibrium during this time, they might become the scapegoat the system naturally seeks.

Additional background on organizational systems and scapegoating is found all over the internet. Here is one such resource.


Dr. Mark L. Vincent is the Founder of Design Group International and the Society for Process Consulting. He hosts the Third Turn Podcast and facilitates Maestro-level leaders. Discover the Maestro-level cohort that is waiting for you! Click the banner below to learn more!

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