Scapegoat

by Don Hartness

A fellow had just been hired as the new CEO of a large high tech corporation. The CEO who was stepping down met with him privately and presented him with three numbered envelopes. “Open these if you run up against a problem you don’t think you can solve,” he said.

Well, things went along pretty smoothly, but six months later, sales took a downturn and he was really catching a lot of heat. About at his wit’s end, he remembered the envelopes. He went to his drawer and took out the first envelope. The message read, “Blame your predecessor.”

The new CEO called a press conference and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CEO. Satisfied with his comments, the press — and Wall Street – responded positively, sales began to pick up and the problem was soon behind him.

About a year later, the company was again experiencing a slight dip in sales, combined with serious product problems. Having learned from his previous experience, the CEO quickly opened the second envelope. The message read, “Reorganize.” This he did, and the company quickly rebounded.

After several consecutive profitable quarters, the company once again fell on difficult times. The CEO went to his office, closed the door and opened the third envelope.

The message said, “Prepare three envelopes.”

What do you do when you’re down and out in Wyoming? You work in the oil field. At least, that’s what I did: a position as an on-site fuel-technician of frack machinery. Don’t let the fancy title fool you: I held the nozzle. Screwing heads on dolls would have been more intellectually stimulating.

Nevertheless, after a few years of economic despair, I welcomed both the pay and the overtime. Especially the overtime. More than I could handle. You see, the company had a problem: they couldn’t keep anybody. I saw two complete crew turn-overs (a dozen employees or so) in just three months. In these economic times, it was unfathomable to see so much turn-over. Employee work ethic was a common complaint among employers in this area, and I figured my company was just a prime example. More for me.

At the end of the year, a number of us went with our supervisor on assignment to another part of the state. I hardly knew my supervisor: for the first couple of months, he was on medical leave; afterwards, he was too busy hiring and training new employees. He seemed like a nice enough guy, always telling jokes and just being “one of the guys”. Working every day for three weeks straight seemed like an excellent opportunity to pick up a lot more of that coveted overtime.

It was during that trip when I discovered why the employee turn-over was so high.

My boss was a monster. When he wasn’t busy yelling at his poor beleaguered crew for minor and imaginary infractions, he was off glad-handing with oil company men while ignoring what he should be doing. I would later discover  that my boss was engaged in a ruthless and systematic conspiracy to sabotage his boss, in order to take that job. To listen to my boss speak, everybody in the company, from the CEO all the way down, was hopelessly idiotic, and he was the savior of the company.

If you were not for him, you were against him. When he learned that I got my job through a connection related to his boss, I was branded.

When I witnessed an error in his judgment resulting in over 300 gallons of spilled diesel fuel, I was targeted.

Using an imaginary paperwork infraction as his excuse, he sent me home one day early. When I got home, I asked for a meeting with his boss, in which I described some of the disputes (but not the diesel spill). It was then that I learned the meaning of the title of this post.

“You do know he already threw you under the bus, right?” I had just learned that the branch manager was openly questioning my boss’s activities, including overseeing a few employees on location, all while leaving the rest back home, unsupervised (hint: the oil company big-wigs were on location too).

“What?” I said bewildered.

“Yea, he said the reason he’s out there, instead of here, is because you and Matt are lazy and incompetent, and that if he wasn’t there, you two couldn’t be trusted to do your job.”

Matt was the other witness to the diesel spill.

“To err is human, and to cover it up is unforgivable.” So goes the maxim recently coined in the wake of corporate accounting scandals, a play off of a similar aphorism regarding human error and forgiveness. It implies that all errors are forgivable, if one only comes clean and admits the error of their ways.

However, as everybody wise enough well knows, it simply isn’t true. “To err is human; to admit it, foolish.” A 300 gallon diesel spill qualifies as an EPA incident, a huge black-eye for a fuel company. My boss, who was already under scrutiny from the branch manager for his managerial behavior, was in trouble…if anybody found out. How do you deal with witnesses? Destroy their credibility ahead of time. Two birds, and two problems, with a single stone-throw.

His boss suggested I write a letter, detailing the events on location, including the spill. After following his recommendation, but before emailing the letter to the branch manager, I asked my coworkers if they would back me up. Together, all of us could stand up to our boss, ending this madness. With their agreement, I emailed the letter.

The reader shouldn’t be surprised by what followed. The branch manger forwarded my letter to the regional manager (thus cementing my boss’s hatred of me) but refused to do anything more about it, since any disciplinary action meant that he would have to get out from behind his cushy desk job (and he was just bidding his time until retirement)…

My boss’s boss, realizing he had no support from the branch manager, disavowed me…

My coworkers were not about to sacrifice their jobs for virtue; hence, all of them backed away, leaving me alone to face a vengeful boss by myself…

After a month, he found an excuse, and fired me.

The moral of the story? If self-deception only involved the self-deceived, it would not be a critical component of evil. However, the scapegoat is necessary for maintaining the deception: the self-deceived sacrifice others to cover their deception. It is the sacrifice of the often innocent scapegoat that makes self-deception a grievous evil.

I’ll let Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, explain in closing:

“All of us tend to be more or less self-centered in our dealings with others. We usually view any given situation first and foremost from the standpoint of how it affects us personally, and only as an afterthought do we bother to consider how the same situation might affect someone else involved. Nonetheless, particularly if we care for the other person, we usually can and eventually do think about his or her viewpoint, which may well be different from ours.

Not so those who are evil. Theirs is a brand of narcissism so total that they seem to lack, in whole or in part, this capacity for empathy…their narcissism makes the evil dangerous not only because it motivates them to scapegoat others but also because it deprives them of the restraint that results from empathy and respect for others. In addition to the fact that the evil need victims to sacrifice to their narcissism, their narcissism permits them to ignore the humanity of their victims as well. As it gives them the motive for murder, so it also renders them insensitive to the act of killing. The blindness of the narcissist to others can extend even beyond a lack of empathy; narcissists may not “see” others at all.”

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