Why Some Family Firms Need a Scapegoat

By Suzanne Stier

When family members have someone to blame, they don't need to look at their own relationships.

The Lowrey family owns an elite private school on 150 acres of land in California's Orange County. Along with the parents, Bill and Mary, the school's founders, three of the Lowreys' married children are members of the administrative staff; the fourth, the only daughter, owns a business with her husband. They all have houses on the property, and the families eat together almost every night—except for the oldest son, Randy, 35, and his wife, Mara.

Randy, who is dean of admissions, feels that he is suffocating. While he and his wife prefer to live on the school property, for both financial reasons and convenience, they want to have a life of their own. The rest of the family interprets this distance as a rejection. They say Randy has “always been different” and “he thinks he's superior to the rest of us.” Though Randy is a good manager and a hard worker, the family continually finds fault with his work. Meetings of the school staff have gotten to be nothing more than occasions for family arguments, mostly focused around complaints about Randy's recruitment policies.

The Lowreys are an actual family, with names and other details disguised. In consulting to family owned businesses I have come across many like the Lowreys that have an identified or resident outsider.

The designated outsider may be a child, an in-law, or an employee. Just as in the Biblical story of the scapegoat, in which the sins of the community are placed on the head of the goat sent into exile, the family uses the designated outsider to avoid responsibility for its own behavior. As long as the family has someone to blame for whatever goes awry, the members don't need to look at their own relationships. In this way, no family member needs to ask: “Who am I in this family and what is the impact of my behavior on others?”

As in the Lowreys' case, the scapegoat frequently appears in families that are intensely involved with one another, who are deeply “enmeshed.” Often these families seem to have a kind of super-self to which the behavior of all the members is expected to conform. The theme is: “Do as I do; believe as I believe; act as I act.” Family members or employees who don't conform are branded as renegades. Any attempt to move away from the “super-self” and achieve some measure of independence is perceived as selfish and rejecting.

Thinking in such families tends to be black and white. The members typically lack the live-and-let-live quality that is essential to managing any organization of human beings. In dealing with renegades, the solutions are often extreme: Either change the person who dares to express his or her separateness, or push the person out altogether. However, the scapegoat can never be completely pushed out. The family “we-ness” would lose its meaning if the members did not have someone in common to attack. Likewise, the excluded person can become as addicted to the game as the rest of the group. He or she finds an identity within the family by accepting the role of self-pitying victim or martyr.

The scapegoat or designated outsider does not have to be a family member. An employee can serve the same purpose. Frequently I will hear that a company has had trouble finding a competent person for a particular position. In one case, five different people had held the same job in as many years and none had worked out. It sometimes turns out that whoever has the position, no matter what the person's competence, becomes a scapegoat for the family.

Creating a scapegoat can be a way of keeping unwanted feelings and unresolved tensions at bay. Take the case of a family that I worked with that owns a chain of supermarkets in Florida. Jim and Anita Bell, the owners, have two sons in the business, Cary and Ed. The mother, who is the chief financial officer, constantly criticizes the youngest, Cary. Cary and his wife, Judy, are this family's designated outsiders.

Cary Bell has never been able to satisfy his mother's exacting standards. When as a young man he showed off his new car to her, she commented, “I was wondering whose car that was. I've never seen anything so ugly.” When he decided to marry Judy, Anita remarked that the young woman was “different from us,” even though Judy is from the same religious background. Anita constantly criticizes Cary and Judy for the way they are bringing up their children. Not surprisingly, the younger couple's defensiveness is covered up in an attitude of superiority. (“We're better than they are. Look what we have to put up with.”)

According to Anita, Cary does nothing right, either in his personal life or in the business. The youngest son is operations manager, and his mother constantly complains that he is late for work, doesn't listen to her views, or hasn't carried out her orders in the way she wanted. Cary, meanwhile, is growing more and more resentful and losing interest in his work. “No matter what I do, it's never right,” he says. “So why should I try?”

Jim Bell, the father, is greatly influenced by Anita, and last Christmas he agreed to give Ed a larger bonus than Cary. Cary hasn't found out about it yet, but secrets like this are hard to keep, and when he does, there's sure to be fireworks.

What feelings can be so powerful, so difficult to deal with, that parents come down so hard on one of their offspring? My discussions with this family convinced me that the anger Jim and Anita share toward Cary and his spouse is one of the few points of agreement they have in their marriage. Making outcasts of the young couple is one of the most important ways that the parents perpetuate the illusion that they see eye to eye and have a loving, sharing marriage.

Jim and Anita like to think of themselves as happily married—the ideal couple, like Ozzie and Harriet. In fact, there are values on which they are deeply divided. Both come from poor families. Although Anita is proud of the money they have made, she dislikes any show of “ostentation.” Jim partially agrees with her but has come to enjoy a few luxuries. He spends a good deal of money on fine clothes and shoes, which irritates Anita no end. True to form, Anita thinks spending on clothes is wrong. There is no compromise position.

Blaming Cary and Judy for the family unhappiness—and Cary for business upsets—allows the parents to avoid issues in their relationship. They don't have to face their disappointments in each other, or their fundamental disagreements. It is tragic that parents can hurt their own children because of an inability to confront their feelings. (It can work the other way around as well!) And it is doubly unfortunate that those feelings usually disrupt the operation of a business.

Without the assistance of a qualified counselor, it is virtually impossible for such families to unravel and fully understand the origins of their difficulties. In businesses that have a scapegoat, one solution lies in looking at relationships within the family and the ways that each member contributes to the problem. By focusing on “the system” rather than the individuals, the family can avoid the blaming that has poisoned their relationships. This process makes the members more aware of the roles they play, and the various functions served by treating one member as an outcast. It also makes them realize the price they pay—emotional, financial, and often physical—for having a designated outsider.

When family members understand how they interact, their roles, their expectations of one another—as well as the costs and benefits of their behavior—they can move toward change. To do this, they have to test out new behaviors; they require coaching, practice, and support. At the same time, the consultant can guide family members in developing a vision for the future of the business that will focus their energies more positively and productively.

The process worked well for the family of Jim and Anita Bell. They met as a family council and agreed that they wanted to improve their relationships, not only for themselves but for the third generation (there are eight grandchildren). They examined the patterns in their relationships that locked them in conflict. Jim and Anita sought marital counseling and brought their insights back to the family sessions. Their sons, Cary and Ed, spent a great deal of time working on a constitution for the business that lays out rules for management meetings, performance reviews, perks, and such.

The outcome in the Lowrey family was quite different. After much work on issues in their relationships, Randy decided to leave the business. He made a clean break with his life at the school by moving with his wife to another state and going into another field. Although his mother says the move broke her heart, it was probably the healthiest solution for the family and the business. Ironically, now that Randy is truly an outsider, living far from the Lowrey compound, his relationship with the rest of the family has improved.

Suzanne Stier is a family business consultant in Woodbridge, CT. She has a Ph.D. in social psychology and organizational behavior, and also consults with large public corporations.

Readings on family systemsReweaving the Family Tapestry, edited by Fredda Herz Brown. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1991.Bowen Family Systems Theory, by Daniel Papero. Allyn & Bacon, Needham, MA, 1990.

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Spring 1993

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