Everybody believed Paul was the problem. His teammates complained in anonymous interviews that he was overly critical and negative. They said he dominated conversations, and became aggressive when someone disagreed with him. Despite acknowledging his deep technical knowledge, Paul’s teammates said that if he left the team they would be more effective. Ouch.
But Paul wasn’t their only complaint. They also grumbled about not having influence with the senior executives who sponsored their work. And they criticized Mary, the team leader, for not confronting Paul or their senior leaders.
I had been hired by Mary to facilitate the development of her team. Part of my agreement with Mary was to provide the team with the anonymous input from my interviews. I commonly use this approach (called action research), but I had never heard such a hairball of negativity from a team before.
Was I supposed to be the team’s messenger and tell Paul that the team was voting him ‘off the island?’ Was I supposed to recommend to Mary that Paul be asked to leave the team before our two-day team retreat? Neither option felt right.
But then my training in team dynamics kicked in. I realized that Paul’s behavior was not the real problem. The real problem was that the team was feeling out of control and powerless. And rather than confront those uncomfortable feelings, they displaced those frustrations on a target that was easier to hold responsible – namely, Paul. In other words, Paul was the team’s scapegoat.
It’s not about the goat
The term scapegoat has its origins in the Bible. It relates to the sacrifice of a goat as a ritual of atonement for a community’s sins. It later came to refer to someone unfairly blamed for offenses committed by others.
Killing a goat may have been useful in ancient times to appease a capricious god. Nowadays it’s an unproductive way to shift responsibility from where it belongs. Paul was not responsible for the team’s problems; the team was. If they were aware of their actions I thought they might gain confidence to confront any negative team behavior and, as important, confront the organization to either clarify their authority and role, or disband the team.
With this insight I developed a plan. First, I briefed Mary on my findings so she could prepare herself. I also met with Paul individually. This provided him a safe outlet to vent his own frustrations. He gave me an earful, and surprisingly, much of it was quite helpful.
I believed the team wouldn’t be able to work productively or come to terms with their lack of influence until they dealt with their internal issues first. But I needed to create a ‘safety zone’ for them to be genuine with each other.
Trust first, task second
My first activity was a ‘back-stories’ exercise. They shared how their early childhood influences (families, culture, education, etc.) shaped who they are as executives today. This helped them see each other as human beings first, professionals second.
Then I shared the themes from the interviews, but framed them as team issues, not personal issues. The room fell silent and people shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. All of a sudden Paul spoke. “I know I’ve been behaving badly. I’m just so frustrated and don’t know how to deal with it. When we get bogged down I just get fidgety and act like a bully. I know I need to manage myself better.”
Another pregnant pause… and a sigh of relief. In the wake of the openness created by Paul’s admission, I facilitated a team feedback activity. In this exercise team members are asked to provide feedback to each other along three questions: what I appreciate about your contribution to the team, what irritates me about your participation, and what I’d like you to consider doing differently (more of, less of, etc.).
The team realized that they were all contributing to the negative dynamic in some way. Paul’s behavior was just the most dramatic and visible. And Mary realized her passivity with senior leadership was undermining the team’s motivation.
After the exercise, I asked the group to take a walk and reflect on their own behavior. Then, they returned to the meeting with one personal commitment that would improve the team’s functioning. This provided a platform to recognize each other’s progress and hold each other accountable.
In a way the team had Paul to thank for being the repository of their negative feelings. Once this hostility was cleared, the team felt more powerful to confront the organization and increase their influence.
If you notice in your own team a pattern of one person being blamed (usually behind their back), consider the scapegoat effect and ask yourself, who might you be scapegoating? And more importantly, what is the real issue behind the blame?