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  • Alexandra Miller, Psy, D.

The Scapegoat in the Workplace, at Funerals and in Families Podcast Transcript


Psychology America with Dr. Alexandra

Have you ever noticed the types of fights that can happen among families at funerals, and how often it's focused on frustration directed at one person? Have you every noticed one particular person at work or in the family becoming the most frequent object of sarcastic jokes and eye rolls? Or . . . have you ever been that person that’s being beaten up?

Kevin, a patient who worked in IT, reported to me in session that he was stressed out by the group he is working with on a project. No one was telling him this directly but he felt like the other members of the team didn’t like him and were even hostile to him. As far as he could see, he was performing and contributing equally to everyone else, but the group still seemed more likely to complain or roll their eyes about him if he made a mistake . . . whereas when Jeannette or James next to him made errors their errors were overlooked or seen with soft eyes. When there was a complaint from the business department next door, his colleague Dave Z. assumed Kevin was to blame right away when he actually had nothing to do with it. This seemed to be happening over and over again. He could see the way people looked at each other with knowing glances in a way that left him out or left him feeling like they were talking about him. He knew and I knew as a psychologist that he was not the paranoid type, so let’s rule that out. I will say that I remember him as a nice and likable and competent guy by all standards. But Kevin clearly knew he was feeling shut out by this group. The stress from his work environment made him feel terrible and it was bleeding into his home life. He dreaded going to work and wished he could get out of this group. Upon further questioning it was clear to me that Kevin was this group’s scapegoat. We’ll get back to what he did about it after I give some background on what scapegoating is.

Human groups have been studied extensively and groups have a life of their own. A group of five people has five individual people in it, but the group as a whole is also it’s own entity and it’s own separate animal, so to speak.

My father came to the United States as a refugee from Hungary when he was just sixteen years old. My mother first came to the United States from Brazil as an exchange student at age 16, and then came to stay in the United States at the age 18. People ask me: where did they meet? Of course! the answer is New York City.

Based on my study of group and individual psychology and on my life experience of growing up with international parents, I always say that people are people wherever you go in the world. If you throw a group of people together from any given part of the world, that group of humans will probably behave in similar ways. Someone in the group will emerge as the leader or another person may emerge as the funny one in the group. . . no matter which culture the group is from.

One of my mentors in graduate school, the late Clay Alderfer, was a great contributor to the body of work on the study of human groups.

At a prior point in my life, as an undergrad at Duke, I was a pre-law student. My maternal side, the Brazilian side, is a family of lawyers and politicians and I was following the path of my family, as many of us do. The summer after my sophomore year, when I was living in Washington DC for a law internship, I joined the DC Public Library and randomly picked up a book about Abraham Maslow. Maslow, many of us remember, is the humanistic psychologist who came up with the hierarchy of needs: physiological needs at the bottom, then safety, then love and belonging, then esteem, then self actualization. It wasn’t so much his hierarchy of needs that inspired me about Maslow, but it was that Maslow was one of the first psychologists to look at what is great about humans. Previously psychology had focused on the mental illness and what went wrong with human beings. Maslow studied exceptional human beings, and their peak experiences, and what made us great. He himself was initially inspired b a vision of using psychology to bring peace to a table of leaders at the United Nations. He was the beginning of the positive psychology movement. I was inspired. I announced to my mom that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a psychologist. This was unheard of in her side of the family, and her response was: if you want to be a psychologist, that means you need to see a psychologist. And that also means you can’t have your grandfather the judge’s ring. My mom and I worked it out and I am delighted with my decision and with the privilege to do the work I do in my field.

So Clay Alderfer, the director of the doctoral program in psychology I entered at Rutgers, had years before been a key scientist to continue the body of work that Abraham Maslow started. He built on Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs and further refined the hierarchy into not five but three needs that we have as humans: existence, relatedness and growth. Existence has to do with our basic material needs. Relatedness: that’s our desire to have important and meaningful interpersonal relationships and lastly, our growth needs are our inner desire for personal development and self actualization. Later in his life, Clay extensively studied human groups, and that is what we are talking about today.

Clay and others, through their study of groups confirmed over and over again that groups do have a life of their own. What we are talking about in this episode today is just one phenomenon that is often seen in human groups: the scapegoat. Whether it’s a church rectory, a group of social workers, a family or a corporate environment. . .it’s a rare group that, when under stress, won’t find a scapegoat.

What is a scapegoat?

First let me tell you about the origin of the word scapegoat and where this word comes from. Scapegoating was practiced by the early Hebrew tribes and is discussed in the book of Leviticus. The Hebrews would symbolically put their sins onto a goat and then drive the goat over a cliff. So . . .they were symbolically putting the parts of themselves that they didn’t like, that they felt guilty about, that they wanted to cut off onto the goat and then driving it out forever. We do the same thing in groups of humans when we scapegoat.

It’s been studied and found that groups have an unconscious life of their own. Chances are that in any given group. . . each individual in that group is feeling their own stress about life. This one is stressed about their marriage, that one is stressed about their child, this one is afraid he’ll lose his job, that one feels unappreciated and this one is overwhelmed with no free time.

What happens next is that each of these people in the group, instead of looking inwards to what is truly causing their stress, unconsciously decide: someone is responsible for my stress. The group looks around and decides who that someone is, and without words . . . but with a known agreement . . . they choose the scapegoat.

The group then unleashes all their stress onto that person in direct and indirect ways and begin to drive that person crazy. They are harsher on them, they blame them more than anyone for when things go wrong, and they behave in such a way that they eventually drive that person out of the group or, “drive them crazy.”

This is what happened to Kevin the IT guy in the example we started with. The problem is, when a scapegoat is successfully driven out, the group is still left with their own stress. So what do they do next? They choose another scapegoat.

Who is chosen to be the scapegoat?

Scapegoat literature, including work done by Leroy Wells Jr, talks about people’s valency or tendency to become a scapegoat.

The scapegoat is often found to be one of two leaders in a group. There is the “leader leader,” which is the obvious leader of the group, and then there is the leader of the telling of the unpleasant things.

This applied to Kevin’s case. I asked him if he was being the truth teller about the unpleasant things that were going wrong at work and he lit up and said “YES! I don’t get it but no one is saying anything about what’s going wrong, so I’m the only one who speaks up and tells the truth! Someone has to do it and I’m the only one!”

So here’s how it goes. Everyone in the group knows the unpleasant things that are happening or going wrong. Everyone in the group wishes someone would say it, but they won’t say it. When someone opens their mouth and says it, that gives emotional relief to the group - - this is a phenomenon of group dynamics. Oh, thank goodness someone said it! But the catch is: the one who frequently expresses these unpleasant things is also likely to be chosen as the scapegoat.

The group then begins their unconscious mission to unleash all of their life stress onto this person and start to subtly and not so subtly drive this person crazy and out.

More characteristics of who is chosen as the scapegoat include . . . the scapegoat is also often perceived to be a strong person. Weak and crying wouldn’t work for this person to receive what the group is about to unleash on them.

And lastly, the scapegoat is often different in some way, whether they are the favorite of the boss, or a different color skin, or a different gender than the majority in the group or even smarter than the rest. Just different than the general makeup of the rest of the group . . . this makes them more of a candidate.

So all of the above can make someone have more of a valency to be chosen as the scapegoat. This doesn’t mean they have to have all these qualities: one may be enough.

In a moment I will tell you what you can do if you find yourself in a group with a scapegoat and you want to help them get out of it.

Case 2: The Funeral

The patient describes how her sister Suzy, who has no filter, got everyone upset at the funeral. When dad died, they couldn’t believe that with five children, he didn’t leave a will. Their estranged cousin who they hadn’t seen in 10 years emerged and claimed he had a written copy. And what were they going to do about their brother, Bob, who moved in to Dad’s home after his divorce and claims Dad told him he could have it? The sister Suzy, who everyone was angry with, always had a reason why she was too busy visit Dad in his last year of life when he was housebound. Suzy definitely wasn’t there for him in the last few months of his life when the family took turns doing more intense care. Now here she was, full of her ideas for how they should conduct the funeral service. When Suzy walked in the room, you could feel the tension in the air. The rest of the family would roll their eyes and grit their teeth when she wasn’t looking. There are details about her getting involved with the cookies and about her trying to help and examples of her saying the wrong thing which eventually led to: an explosion of anger and Suzy’s cutoff from the family.

Suzy wasn’t perfect, but the anger she got from the group was too much for the situation: in this case, she was the scapegoat for all the tension the group was feeling during this difficult time.

People are stressed at funerals. They’re sad to lose a loved one. Chaos and change has been introduced to the family on many different levels as a member of the group has exited. This high degree of emotion and tension is prime breeding ground for a scapegoat. Everyone starts to hate and direct their stress onto one member of the family and you hear things like: “Can you believe said that!!! Ugh!!!”

So, what do we do with this information I have shared about scapegoats?

Let’s go back to Kevin, the case examples of the IT consultant. Through our psychotherapy he realized that he was making himself a primary target to be the scapegoat by always being the negative leader, the bearer of bad news. I asked Kevin to zip his lips when it seemed like just the right time to be the truth teller at work. I told him: it will feel like it’s driving you crazy to zip your lips, and the group will be looking at you, quietly waiting for you to do your job, do the dirty work, and give them relief . . . but zip your lips and wait . . . you watch, it will emerge from someone else. It will have to bubble out from somewhere!

I remember that it killed him the first time, but he came back amazed that it worked . . . not right away, but eventually he “spread the wealth,” so to speak of who was the one to bear the bad news, which put him less at risk for then being attacked and softened things for him in the group. Notice that Suzy of the funeral was also someone who didn’t have a filter. In sum: if you are the scapegoat, look to see if you are also too much of the teller of bad news for your group and consider zipping your lips and spreading the wealth of who gets to share the negative observations. This doesn’t at all mean that difficult things shouldn’t be talked about, in fact, but in this case we are talking about spreading it out.

If you are the leader of the group and you see scapegoating happening: there is something you can do. It’s been shown that having the leader align themselves with the scapegoat helps to pull them out of it. They are in the best position to help and to establish the group behavior.

If you are a member of a group and you see the scapegoating happening, right there you are ahead of the game because you are aware of it. You might have noticed that your anger toward the person is really too much for the situation. Be aware of your own internal stressors, your own stuff, your own anxiety that’s going on with your life, that is the true cause. It’s scary to lend your support to the scapegoat because you may be afraid that the pack of wolves would then attack you. Can you get the group leader to help? Another option is talk about it with a friend in a group and see if together you can step in to assist the scapegoat. It will be harder for the group to attack three rather than one.

In some cases, consider what is the story of the scapegoat that could possibly make them “annoying” to you? If they are doing something to make them the target . . . why do they behave like this?

When someone finds out that I’m a psychologist they might immediately say“are you analyzing me?” And my answer is: yes, I am. What I know or what anyone knows doesn’t turn off. But the good news is: being a psychologist has made me a more compassionate human being. As a psychologist you’ll will hear every angle of every story of why people do what they do.

Take Suzy from the funeral example. . . .She had mixed feelings about dad because when she told him a few years back that her brother had molested her, Dad said he didn’t believe her and asked her to never speak about it again. He *had* been a great father in so many ways, but . . .she also felt betrayed and hadn’t been able to work that through. This, and the fact that she moved two hours away, is why her visits to him dropped off.

There is so much more to talk about the fascinating topic of the scapegoating. It is a tragedy that throughout history people have been scapegoated for no fault of their own as easy targets for groups to deal with their current stressors. The historical tragedy of torturing and killing “witches,” the majority of whom were vulnerable older females is one of many examples.

I do want to offer hope that it is possible to have groups without a scapegoat. The leader of the group or family has a special responsibility in creating an environment that will not support scapegoating. I have seen wonderful instances of cooperative groups that **were** truly supportive of each other, both in front of each other and behind closed doors. I must say that in all the the instances I have personally witnessed, there was a leader of the group who set the right tone.

I hope this podcast has been helpful in raising awareness and ideas about the psychological phenomena of scapegoating. Perhaps with a greater understanding of scapegoating, listeners can find a way to remove themselves from being in the scapegoat position or notice when they themselves are participating in scapegoating and make a change.

This podcast was sponsored by PonderRosa Studios of Lafayette, NJ. PonderRosa offers a professional New York experience and sound in a private creative setting, including a comfortable environment for artists to reside while they record.

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