Unless you have been living under a particularly shady rock or have the preternatural gift to ignore the sporting world and all its permeating controversies, you’ve heard about the vicious bullying case involving Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins. Just in case: although the situation is far from concluded, it seems clear Incognito (a veteran offensive lineman with a history of bullying) tormented second-year teammate Jonathan Martin with racist and sexual slurs and forced him to spend $15,000 to fund a team trip to Las Vegas that he did not attend, in addition to other brutish behavior ultimately resulting in Martin storming out of the team facility to check himself into a hospital due to emotional distress.
Unfortunately, the Dolphins case may be more typical than many believe. While some have been quick to surmise that the professional sports locker room is a unique atmosphere, previous research about workplace bullying indicates otherwise. The severity may differ from place to place, but workplace bullying is a recognized issue in most Western countries, and its effects on tormented employees permeate all industries.
Workplace bullying—a somewhat alien and ridiculed term in the United States—has been studied fairly extensively in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, since the 1990s. In Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice, an analysis on workplace-bullying studies found that 16 percent were published in the 1990s, and over 80 percent between 2000 and 2008, with more than half of the studies originating in Europe.
The recognition of workplace bullying in other countries extends beyond academia, too. “[Other western countries] have laws,” Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute told me over the phone. “Canada has five provincial laws and a federal law, but not us. So it isn’t like it hasn’t been going on by any means. Its just that the Americans have their heads in the sand.”
"If management said, ‘No, I don’t tolerate it,’ and really meant it and monitored it, it wouldn’t happen."
Despite this history, there’s no generally recognized frequency of workplace bullying. A 2006 survey study of 6,175 Belgian workers found that only 35 percent of respondents had not experienced any kind of bullying at work over the previous six months, although only 11 percent reported high abuse levels over the same time span. A study of the American workforce by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that bullying affects 35 percent of the American workforce, although only nine percent were currently being bullied. If that sounds like an exaggerated figure, even if the Workplace Bullying Institute is overestimating the problem by 300 percent, it would still result in roughly one in 10 American workers experiencing workplace bullying at some point in their lives. So if the Incognito saga sounds like a unique or novel issue, the research suggests otherwise.
BOSSES OR AUTHORITY FIGURES of some kind are typically involved in cases of workplace bullying. “[Seventy-two] percent of the time the bully is a boss,” Namie said, although he says the bullying can come from any type of authority figure, which was a status Incognito held as a veteran player. Dr. Keith Kaufman, a researcher at Catholic University and a sports psychologist who mostly works with student athletes, confirmed this analysis. “I’ve seen more issues where the problem was between coach and player as opposed to among players themselves.”
Regardless of who is doing the bullying, the culture of the organization is often a critical enabler, as it seems to have been in the Martin case. “In many organisations with high levels of bullying, negative and abusive acts were indirectly ‘permitted,’” summarizes Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace. “Accordingly, bullying is seen to be prevalent in organisations where employees and managers feel that they have the support, or at least implicitly the blessing, of senior managers to carry on their abusive and bullying behaviour.” Namie gave me a much more definitive conclusion: "If management said, ‘No, I don’t tolerate it,’ and really meant it and monitored it, it wouldn’t happen.”
Although that may be the case in most workplaces, there may be other considerations in a military or hierarchical institution where leaders perceive themselves as character-builders. Many sports still cling to an ideal of the coach as instructor, teacher, and a "bastion of discipline." The methods required to not only win games but teach life lessons may demand more than the typical workplace. As such, different coaches have different leadership techniques to match their varying perceptions of what a coach ought to be. Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, leads meditation sessions and considers positivity a cornerstone of his player interactions, which is a far cry from the authoritative approach of coaches like Nick Saban, Bill Parcells, or Bob Knight, whose entire emotional range seems to operate within the spectrum of anger. Kaufman was careful to specify that this is not to say that all authoritative coaches are abusive, but that a greater range of leadership styles is acceptable in sports, compared to most workplaces.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether the players buy into whatever the coach’s approach may be, which underscores the importance of teammates—and co-workers in general—in the bullying environment. “[The other Dolphins players] mirrored the exact same process as the co-worker do-nothingness in the non-sports world,” Namie said. “Workers do not rally to support their bullied colleagues out of fear.” There’s little motivation, other than common decency, for co-workers to speak up, and lots of risk, such as becoming a target themselves or risking reprimand and even termination.
A VICTIM OF WORKPLACE bullying can expect to see an increase in stress, which can result in all kinds of negative health effects, including depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Namie’s studies have shown that 77 percent of bullied targets lose their jobs, while only 11 percent of bullies are sanctioned or punished in any way.
Although Namie doesn’t have much positive encouragement for bullying targets, he advises they take time off work to check their health and, upon return, go to the highest-level person who isn’t associated with the bully and report their actions. Still, he stresses the most important thing is to leave the organization “with your dignity intact.”
Kaufman advises a very different approach for athletes involved in bullying. “I think it’s complicated when you’re an athlete. For example, if you’re a student athlete and on scholarship, [leaving the team] may not be such an easy thing to do. If you’re a high school athlete and you’re trying to get a scholarship and that’s the only way you can go to college, it's also not such an easy thing to do. " Still, he’s careful to say that quitting is always an option. "I wouldn’t tell them what they should do. I might help them explore their options. If they felt really trapped and it was causing a great deal of distress, we want to put every option on the table.”
As Kaufman and Namie seem to make clear, once you’re bullied, it almost never ends well.
IT DOESN'T TAKE A particularly noble person or seasoned bullying researcher to relate to the basic human decency this problem demands. But it takes more than this acknowledgement to fix the problem; it requires a movement, a shift. It became apparent through my conversations with Namie and Kaufman that we were no longer discussing the brutality itself, but rather the difficulty of deviating from ingrained customs and norms. It was at this point I began to understand why many European countries call workplace bullying “mobbing.”
Both Kaufman and Namie related bullying to the concussion epidemic in football: the growing recognition that change needs to occur, but also the tacit acknowledgement that such a necessary change would alter the fundamental nature of the sport and its interpersonal interactions. Players would no longer be able to collide at massive speeds; emotions would no longer be ferociously suffocated. In the same way we don’t want to acknowledge the physical vulnerability of our unflappable heroes, perhaps we also implicitly resist the notion they could be mentally vulnerable. The logical basis for adhering to these customs is evaporating by the day, but this isn’t a purely rational calculus.
Awareness of the problem and an actual behavioral shift—both by the individual and in society—are two completely separate topics. “We have all this research evidence that shows what best predicts performance, but sometimes that goes against what a particular athlete might feel in a particular locker room in a particular culture,” Kaufman said. “So how do you bridge that gap? That’s really almost a societal shift. So much of this goes to the way sport is, the way Western sports function."
Maybe, then, our outcome-based culture demands an outcome-based solution. Perhaps the way forward is to prove, as Pete Carroll and others are attempting to do, that being aware of your mental (and physical) health makes you a better athlete, not a weaker one. That ignoring the mental health of an athlete in order to achieve a short-term goal, like winning a game, often doesn’t work out in the long run. Once that happens, it’s possible the entire weak/strong dichotomy will break down. This is analogous to what Namie does with corporations, where he emphasizes the financial costs of turnover, absenteeism, and litigation. Teams play to win games, and companies work to make money. If bullying impedes those goals, the cultural shift might happen on its own.
Namie sees the workplace bullying problem as a larger cultural problem as well, endemic of an antiquated American attitude synonymous with a less tolerant era. “This is our culture,” Namie emphasized. “We think this is OK because of this American, rugged individualistic mantra. Our stereotype of football is our own stereotype turned inward on who we are. We can toughen anything out.” Namie then let out a long sigh and lowered his voice so it was barely audible. “Too bad we’re much more fragile than we think we are.”