Exposed: The Dark Side of Office Politics and How to Survive the Lightning Rod Phenomenon : Future Focus Counselling & Consulting

In my work as a therapist for clients in corporate environments, I’ve often observed a curious overlap between the dynamics of work and personal lives. The similarities between family systems and organizational structures are pretty evident. Today, I want to explore one such parallel – the “lightning rod” phenomenon.

Parallel Worlds: The Family Room and the Boardroom

In family therapy, we refer to a concept known as the “identified patient.” This person, often unwittingly, is labeled as the ‘problem’ within the family. An instance could be a child who begins misbehaving at school. Yet, their disruptive behavior often masks deeper family issues, such as conflicts between parents or sibling rivalries.

This pattern isn’t uncommon in the corporate world either. Here, an individual, team, or a project can become a “lightning rod,” bearing an unfair amount of blame or criticism. Picture a software engineer constantly criticized for not meeting deadlines. Despite striving for improvement, their efforts seem in vain and may even intensify the negative attention. However, the root of the issue could lie in systemic problems like unrealistic timelines or resource shortages.

Lightning Rods in Tech Companies

Just as an identified patient’s actions can reflect hidden family distress, a corporate lightning rod might signify deeper organizational issues. It’s simpler to pin the blame on an engineer for delayed projects than to address wider, more complex problems such as inefficient procedures or communication breakdowns.

Weathering the Storm: Coping Strategies

If you find yourself in the role of a lightning rod or an identified patient, consider these strategies to navigate your situation:

Self-awareness and Acknowledgement: Begin by recognizing when you’re being made a scapegoat. This might be when you notice you’re frequently singled out for criticism despite multiple project issues. Maintain your professionalism even when under stress.

Projecting Neutrality: If you’re in a toxic or abusive work environment, remember it’s unlikely to change. You need to prioritize your well-being. The “grey rock” method recommended by therapists can be useful. Act unresponsive or disinterested, depriving the abuser of the emotional response they seek. By hiding your emotions, they may lose interest and stop bothering you.

Seeking Support: Discuss your experiences with a trusted colleague or friend familiar with your company culture. They might offer useful feedback or support. If you feel overwhelmed, consider seeking professional help for insights and coping strategies.

Setting Boundaries: Avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. Be prepared and answer questions without engaging too much, like during a deposition. Overcommunication can signal anxiety, which can feed into the unhealthy system.

Creating an Exit Strategy: Analyze the reasons to stay versus the reasons to leave. Consider seeking professional mental health support to plan your future steps.


High-pressure environments can blind us to the broader picture. The lightning rod phenomenon reminds us that challenges within an organization, just like in families, aren’t isolated. Addressing these issues systemically, instead of resorting to scapegoating, can foster healthier workplaces and more resilient organizations.

However, if you’re persistently the lightning rod or scapegoat despite your efforts, it might be time to seek new job opportunities. Prioritize your well-being and recognize when a situation no longer serves your personal or professional growth. Remember, navigating the storm isn’t just about enduring it; it’s also about knowing when to seek safer harbors.

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I am licensed to practice in Washington State and the following Canadian Provinces: Yukon, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.