Scapegoats and the Glass Cliff: When Careers Get Derailed
Scapegoats and the Glass Cliff: When Careers Get Derailed

Scapegoating and the glass cliff may sound like something made up or exaggerated. Unfortunately, for the victims and those who value fairness, they are real phenomena. Scapegoating and glass cliff scenarios slyly work their destructive magic within a workplace. In this article, I’ll break down what these terms mean, who they affect and why.


glass cliff and scapegoating are realMost are familiar with the word scapegoat. It can be noun or an adjective and it’s what happens when someone is unfairly blamed when things go poorly. To be scapegoated is a very difficult situation because often the scapegoat ends up out of a job or demoted, and their reputations take a hit (read this previous blog article about what to do if you’re concerned about becoming a scapegoat or it’s happening to you).

These situations usually fly under the radar. The victims don’t usually talk about what happened, so unless it involves a public figure it stays rather low-profile. This is similarly true when discussing glass cliff situations, however a glass cliff I would argue lets a particular employee fall more selectively. Typically, the glass cliff is experienced by women and racial/ethnic minorities.

The Glass Cliff and Career Derailment

Before I discuss the glass cliff in depth, it’s important to explain career derailment. This is what happens when someone, usually in a leadership position, is perceived as a poor fit for the challenges they face. When a leader’s career derails, it means he or she will not be considered for promotions because of their diminished effectiveness. Although some derailed managers are fired from their jobs, many remain employed but are no longer seen as promotable to higher-level positions.

glass cliff causes career derailmentUnfortunately, executive derailment is very common. It happens to 30 to 50 percent of all high-functioning managers at some point in their career. Further, since 50 percent of employees say that they have left a job because of their manager, a lot of managers are under-performing. Clearly, there’s a real need for executive and leadership coaching, particularly during the earlier phases of a leader’s career.

Risky Situations Stick to Some People More Than Others

Despite these grim statistics, not all derailment is the leaders’ own fault. In fact, sometimes candidates are put into high-risk situations that are almost pre-destined to fail. When we look carefully at the details of many of these derailment scenarios we can see common characteristics – there’s an even more nuanced form of derailment and it’s called the glass cliff.

The glass cliff intentionally plays off the better-known term “glass ceiling,” that’s used to describe the challenges that women and other under-represented groups face as they try to advance professionally.

“women and other minority groups take on leadership roles under very different circumstances than men. Basically, the phenomenon predicts that women and other minorities are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions that are associated with a higher risk of criticism and failure. One consequence is that these leadership positions are more precarious than other (male-dominated) leadership positions.” (taken from a 2017 blog on Bullying, Bias and Burnout).”

A very vivid and public example of this has been playing out in plain sight with UK Prime Minister Teresa May and her attempts to implement a “Brexit” strategy for the U.K. (for a more thorough analysis, read this PBS article from April 2019).

What Causes the Glass Cliff and the Resulting Saviour Effect?

During tumultuous times, women and minorities are often chosen as leaders. This is often because a company or a country is looking for something or someone novel to represent a bold, new direction that will help it regain its footing. The symbolism is important because it’s consistent with the stereotype that women are usually comforting and nurturing during difficult times.

Although these roles are easy to see and classify as risky, women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups often accept these promotions because they have far fewer leadership opportunities. They step into these roles and take a deliberate and calculated risk with the expectation that it will help their careers.

glass cliff affects leaders and politicians

FILE PHOTO: A pro-Brexit protester holds a banner as anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, in London, Britain, January 15, 2019. To match package “BRITAIN-EU/TIMELINE” REUTERS/Henry Nicholls /File Photo (PBS, 2019)

Unfortunately, from the beginning, the deck is stacked against them. They soon find they’re unable to gain access to the support that they’ll need to beat the odds. Examples of this lack of support are discussed in this March 2019 article: “The ‘Glass Cliff’ Puts Women in Power During Crisis — Often Without Support.

On the other hand, “men are more willing to turn these jobs down because they are likely to get a better opportunity, women or minorities often cannot afford to do the same (PBS, April 2019).”

Step Aside, the Saviour Is Here

When these female or minority leaders fail, odds are very good that a man will step in to fix the situation and tie up loose ends. This has a name – it’s called the saviour effect.

When “a woman has been given the chance to resolve the crisis and is perceived to have failed, voters or corporate board members are more likely to choose what they see as the safe option: a white man.” We’ve seen this play out at Yahoo!, Toys R Us, Lucent Technologies, Hewlett-Packard and many other examples (this 2014 article from The Guardian provides more details and references about the saviour effect).

Even though there’s some systemic unfairness that’s built into most of these circumstances, the fact that there are more men in the leadership pipeline also means that they’re more likely to become the saviour based on statistics alone.

To say that the stakes are high for whoever steps in behind PM Teresa May is a gross understatement. Few economists predict good fiscal outcomes and the effects of nationalism and populism are likely to create dramatic ripple effects for UK residents and businesses for years to come.

If something doesn’t feel right at work – maybe you’re concerned about becoming a scapegoat, stepping out on a glass cliff, or other work-related issues, I invite you to contact me confidentially for a free initial consultation by phoneemail, or via direct message on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

Also visit my Executive Coaching page for information about services that are perfect for leaders, executives, and aspiring executives.

More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.

I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.

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