business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Football, George Will once wrote, combines the two worst things about America: "It is violence punctuated by committee meetings."

If current news reports are to be believed, that violence doesn't always take place between the goalposts. It may also be happening during practices and in the locker rooms, as a few players on the Miami Dolphins have provided us with a dramatic look at what can happen when a workplace becomes toxic because of the presence of bullies.

The story began to unfold last week when Jonathan Martin, a Dolphin player, left the team. In short order, it was disclosed that he was having problems getting along with teammates. Given the gargantuan size of the player and the violent reality of football itself, it seemed possible that the player might have been overly sensitive.

Then another very large shoe dropped.

Yesterday a second Dolphin, Richie Incognito, was suspended for leading the mistreatment of Martin. The early reports accused Incognito of sending Martin texts that were racially charged and physically threatening, on top of previous reports of Martin being shaken down for money.

Where the story goes next is anyone’s guess, but the likelihood is it won’t end nicely. Almost instantly stories were appearing about Incognito’s behavior on a previous team and in college, and there are clear hints that he wasn’t alone in his treatment of Martin.

Now it would be really easy to simply dismiss this entire incident as unique to a sports team. After all, athletes are anything but typical workers. Their skills are specific, the salaries unusually large and their physical traits are equally outsized. Yet it strikes me that the drama playing out on the Dolphins might open our eyes to a much bigger situation: the culture of the workplace in general.

First, we know that football players, despite their size, are subject to the same pressures we all face and maybe worse. The award-winning film The Blind Side offered a dramatic look into the sad background of one of those behemoths, whose career—and life—was saved through the intervention of a caring family. So let’s set aside the notion that a 300-pound football player should be impervious to threats.

Second, and more germane to the rest of us, the work place is constantly getting more complex. With more age groups, more ethnicities and more demographics of all kinds mixing then ever before, the rules are changing. What was accepted behavior just a few decades back is way beyond the pale today.

That last line may irritate some of you, but it’s the truth. For any company to succeed today it needs to draw on associates from an ever-widening mix of society. That means you need create and support a culture that makes all those associates feel comfortable so that productivity can rise. Virtually every successful company I know boasts that all its success comes from its people.

That can’t happen if the workplace is toxic.

But be warned, this won’t be an easy issue to tackle. After all, what one person sees as bullying another might see as just having fun. Plus, as anyone who has read the wonderful biography of Steve Jobs can tell you, sometimes even a revered genius can make for a challenging workplace.

The trick is to build excellence and encourage camaraderie, and yet at the same time ensure a culture that allows people with different sensitivities to flourish.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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