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Who Is YOUR Scapegoat – Story of the 3 Letters

Who Is YOUR Scapegoat – Story of the 3 Letters

Have you ever heard the Story of the 3 Letters? I decided to tell my own version in the following vlog as lead-in to a discussion on scapegoating.

Story of the 3 Letters

A young manager is going through a job transition with an outgoing manager. The outgoing manager cryptically imparts his wisdom in the form of 3 letters. The instructions are simple: The first time “stuff hits the fan”, open the first letter. Open the second letter for the second incident, and open the third letter for the third incident.

The young manager gets a great start on his new job, but then reality sets in – and problems come up. As the pressure starts to mount, the manager remembers the three letters. He goes back to his desk and opens the first letter – which reads…

1. Blame Your Predecessor!

This sounds like a great idea to the young manager. Heck, the old manager isn’t even around to defend himself! Company management buys the excuse, and the young manager is back to smooth sailing…for awhile. But business has a way of getting complicated, problems arise, and the young manager finds himself in hot water again. In desperation, he goes back to his desk and opens the second letter – which reads…

2. Blame Your Employees!

The young manager is reluctant to do this, but this is his neck we are talking about here! Either the employees take the fall or he does, so he tells management that he doesn’t have the right resources. Management buys his story, and he cleans house and hires new employees. This reorganization buys him a lot of time because he has brand new employees to ramp up. But the young manager never addressed the root causes for a lot of his problems, and “stuff hits the fan” again. The manager goes to the desk for his salvation and opens the third and final letter – which reads…

3. Prepare 3 Letters!

The moral of this story is that you eventually run out of scapegoats! If you always look to blame others, or blame extenuating circumstances, you eventually run out of targets for your finger-pointing.

Who is YOUR Scapegoat?

Denver had two likely scapegoat candidates within the last year:

  • The Denver Broncos rolled through the 2012 regular season, and they captured the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. They then lost to the underdog Baltimore Ravens, in Denver, because of their fear of failure. Fans demanded that Coach John Fox be fired because his ultra-conservative play-calling contributed to the playoff loss.
  • The Denver Nuggets had a special basketball season in 2012/2013, and they won the most games in franchise history. They secured the #3 seed, and home-court advantage, only to lose the playoff series to an incredibly hot-shooting Golden State Warriors team. I avoided listening to sports radio for a week because I knew what the average fan would be saying. Sure enough, they are still talking about how they want George Karl fired,and they will beat that drum through a long offseason.

In both of these cases, the teams lost in the playoffs – not individuals!  To date, cooler heads prevail in both organizations, and both coaches deservedly retain their jobs.

Who is YOUR scapegoat? We’ve all had them. Perhaps we blame our parents, our spouse, our kids, our boss, our friends and neighbors. At some point in our lives, situations go off track, and we look around to find out who or what is to blame. Maybe you had the worst possible scenario: YOU became the scapegoat for someone else. It’s a terrible feeling, right? In some cases, it can be hard to recover both reputation and confidence.

Let’s hear your stories, your case studies, and perhaps your success stories as you either (1) chose to remain team-minded vs pointing a finger, or (2) recovered after someone set you up to take the fall.

Meanwhile, enjoy the story-telling below.

Photo Credit: William Holman Hunt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Brian Vickery

I love my Vickery Girls - and grandsons! My career has blessed me to the point I was able to start a new consultancy in 2018: Analytic Integrity. I look to provide analytic experience, and business integrity, to an Analytics world while helping data-driven organizations mature. I enjoy teaching and coaching, watching football and basketball, and playing tennis. I graduated UT-Austin.

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  1. Nice video, Brian!

    • Shonali Thanks, Shonali – I love that gazebo, and you can tell I like the story!

  2. Hollywood.
    Since I am the ‘leader’ of my team, the buck stops with me. No, I don’t review every piece of correspondence that goes out but if it hits the fan then ultimately I will take the arrows for my team. I know how hard they work and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
    My main account manager/assistant has been working with me for 12+ years. We know each other well. One of my key accounts is a stickler for accuracy with premium, I mean down to the penny. We had a quirky deal where we needed a policy extension so I told my AM make sure the premium is right. When I saw the numbers they didn’t look right so I asked her to double check. She was a little put off I asked and assured me they were correct so this is what I presented. 
    Guess what? They weren’t right and what we presented was about $12,000 less that what the customer needed to pay. I had to go to him with hat in hand and tell him ‘I’ messed up. Essentially, I had to strip the commission out of the account and get w/ management to work around the rest, but we got it done and honored our numbers. 
    Because nowhere in the conversations did I put any blame on my key person, she knew I would always have her back. She couldn’t have apologized to me anymore and I told her ‘stuff happens,’ unfortunately in our industry there is usually a dollar amount involved when things go sideways. 
    I felt it was the right thing to do as I’m not a big fan of pointing fingers.

    • Outstanding 1st person case study, Bill – of what it’s like to keep your integrity, “take one for your teammate” without finger pointing, and make things right with the cilent.
      Well played, Dorman – well played.

  3. I REALLY need to share this with my students, but also, I can’t escape that I have used myself as a scapegoat! There have been some professional things making me not so chipper and I’ve been hung up on my “message,” certain that it is accurate. Recently, I made the decision to just change it and actionably alter my behavior along with it. I feel better. Just goes to show that even when the scapegoat is external or internal, the only thing we can ever really do is look to our own actions and modify accordingly. Ellen

    • chattyprof Glad you enjoyed it, Ellen. And you nailed it: “look at our own actions and modify accordingly”. Of course, you then have to be satisfied with your course of action. Me, I’m usually frustrated and think I can do better.

  4. Love that anecdote…  I had this realization when I got into some trouble.
    It is great to be on a team, but you are always responsible for the work that you do. 
    That means when stuff goes down you better be able to explain to people what you did to fix things, not what the team didn’t do to help you.  
    When you blame your co-workers, you are not fixing the problem. You are making the situation worse because it takes the focus off the matter at hand.
     What matters is what you do, not what you didn’t do.

    • susansilver I really appreciate that both you and @chattyprof pointed out that it matters what you DO…not what you didn’t do. We can only control our own actions and reactions.
      And we can all afford to try better to NOT look to place blame. Do it enough times, and you are truly standing alone.

  5. Great story. My scapegoats are my kids & husband LOL

    • anitahovey That can be joking (like me looking at my wife when we lose a point…or a kid when we are late, and she can’t find her keys). However, we’ve also seen plenty of cases where spouses and kids blamed family members for their plight.
      I had to quit school to support my husband…I would have “been something” if we didn’t get married so early…I would have gone to college if my parents stayed together…I escaped to drugs because my parents fought.
      Plenty of scapegoats vs buckling down and taking responsibility for your life. Sometimes I’ll scapegoat the little things (like a tennis point…and really, it WAS my shot to win the point, and I tanked it), but I NEVER scapegoat the big ones.


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