How Not to Become the Scapegoat in Consulting

There is an old story about two goats. One was to be slaughtered as a sacrifice, and the other to bear all of the sins of the people and be dispatched into the wilderness, never to return. This so-called “scapegoat” carries on it’s head the full scope of guilty, rebellious, and immoral behavior as an act of atonement for the people who are fundamentally undeserving of atonement. This story illustrates mysterious and profound realities that everyone knows implicitly: regularly, someone undeserving gets a gift, and someone undeserving gets a curse.



“It Is Not My Fault”

As a consultant, I can relate to the scapegoat. “I don’t deserve to be treated like this! Anyone can see how terrible this situation is. It’s not my fault!” Consultants are not always universally popular. This is the burden that consultants have to bear, like the scapegoat heading into the wilderness, when circumstances become strained or worse. Sometimes the scapegoating of the consultant is unfair. Commonly, “scapegoating” is not quite accurate because the way the story goes the goat is innocent, and sometimes we consultants are not.

I am not trying to invest confessionalism into client-consultant relations. I am however, trying to describe behavior that requires acknowledgement of how this can negatively impact a client interaction as well as provide strategies to avoid these pitfalls.


What Bothered The Client?

Earlier in my career, I needed to review another concurrent partner’s Solution Design Document (SDD). What I read was a quite poorly-conceived and sloppily-written document. This less than quality work unsurprisingly ended up upsetting the client. What bothered them specifically?

  • Lack of accountability, in the form of missing agreed-upon requirements
  • Lack of professionalism, in the presence of idiom like “awesome”
  • Lack of discipline, in the shape of:
    1. No page enumeration
    2. Grammatical errors
    3. Stylistic inconsistencies
  • Lack of timeliness, in the delay of its delivery by several weeks



Why Poor Work Happens

Certainly, I could find explanations for the poor quality work. Not every person is a skilled writer. Writing style is interpretive, particularly for a business document that is not being graded according to an agreed-upon style guide. Maybe a word like “awesome” was meant to interject a bit of levity into an otherwise serious deliverable. The consultant could have had personal or professional reasons for the lateness of the document. Any number of factors could justify why the work was not up to standard. What I realized was that the quality of the document was beside the point. A late and careless SDD was just an emblem of a client-consultant relationship that was flawed and had never recovered.



In my introductory paragraph, I used the word “fundamentally” purposefully, as a callback to a minor but significant element of that client-consultant relationship that I observed. In personal interactions, the other consultant used the word “fundamentally” habitually: like, in an hour call, twelve times. The exchange would go something like this:


Client: “Could we do that?”

Consultant: “Fundamentally, the product doesn’t work that way and we can’t do that.”

Which can come off sounding like, “You guys are stupid to ask me ridiculous questions like that.”

The problem was not in what was actually being said, it was the contemptuous attitude that the consultant seemed to reveal. Perhaps saying “fundamentally” too many times in a meeting was a verbal tic that had no ulterior meaning, but the effect was that they were treating the client with self-important dismissiveness. The manner of dealing with the client seemed to indicate a level of condescension that exacerbated the situation when the SDD was late and sloppy.




I’m embarrassed to recall times in my educational and professional life when I performed in the ways that I’ve described above: that is, deficient of my capabilities, or worse. As I’ve gotten more mature, because I do not enjoy being the scapegoat, and because I do enjoy having affirmative relationships with clients, I’ve tried to follow a few simple rules:


  • Treat other people with courtesy.
  • Don’t act conceited.
  • Speak honestly, even if your honesty reveals your deficiencies.
  • Avoid appeals to authority, because nobody cares where you went to school or what credentials you have.
  • Don’t miss deadlines.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Work diligently.
  • Represent yourself, your employer, and your profession with pride.



To Wrap It Up

I can’t pretend that I have achieved a wisdom that renders me invulnerable to negative thoughts and moods, because my rules are not infallible. What I can say is that the impression of being the scapegoat is diminished the more I try to interact with my clients with decency, dependability, and trustworthiness.




About Austin

Austin Amonette is a Senior Consultant at Statera and is a published author and former professor.