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The Workplace Bully: Miami Dolphins Story a Teachable Moment, Says UNH Expert

Release Date:
11/21/2013 9:00 PM
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Nov. 21, 2013

Stuart Sidle, features Stuart Sidle

WEST HAVEN, CONN. --- In his two decades of research on supervisor-employee relationships in the workplace, Stuart Sidle has seen bullies.

In fact, the University of New Haven associate professor of industrial psychology and associate provost has seen so many of them that he has characterized them:

The incompetent finger-pointer – this supervisor gets away with blaming failures and mistakes on powerless subordinates.  

The tactical tough talker – the one who, in the absence of effective processes and procedures, views intimidating and abusing subordinates as a reasonable ways to get desired results. 

The paranoid alpha – the supervisor or powerful employee who is threatened by a new employee and feels the need to sabotage the employee before he or she becomes a competitor.

The psycho boss – the type who takes pleasure in humiliating others.   

The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story making headlines is a compelling example of how hard it is to deal with bullying in the real world, Sidle said. The case, involving two Miami Dolphins players, centers on allegations of player misconduct on the part of Incognito. It involves allegations of threatening texts, racial slurs, extortion and questions about whether coaches or the team’s management knew about the incidents or encouraged some of the behavior. 

Chaotic work environments are often where bullying problems begin, Sidle says.  Organizational culture and certain leadership styles can increase its likelihood.

“Organizations with bullying problems usually have inattentive senior leaders,” Sidle says, Their culture permits a culture that has tolerated uncivil behavior toward certain levels of employees and have units managed by some of these bad bosses.

“Bullying involves repeated aggressive behavior that involves a power imbalance. Physical strength is not the only source of power. And reporting a bully is not always consequence-free.”

The Miami Dolphins case raises complex questions, Sidle said, and has become a learning moment across wide spectrums.

While the NFL is investigating, the public reaction to the story “points out that our culture has shifting attitudes around what it means to be a ‘normal’ male,” Sidle said. “In the past, a male who reported his teammate for bullying may have seemed abnormal or unmanly. Now we are experiencing the clear shift that points out that the bully and those who tolerate it are the deviants.”

Sidle’s research findings have been published in journals including The Academy of Management Perspectives, and he is frequently asked by companies to help select senior-level talent. “In doing so, I assess for characteristics that can be leadership derailers,” he said.

“Companies that want a positive work environment can take steps to avoid hiring leaders who engage in behaviors that damage trust and effective collaboration.”

Bullying in the workplace can be reduced by educating the next generation of leaders to recognize it and finding ways to create positive work environments, he added. To do so, he said, leaders have to hire people who are not just qualified but also excited by the company’s culture and values. They also have to build a true sense of team spirit and trust among employees, create opportunities for employees’ personal growth and development and foster pride in achievement – but not at the expense of the long-term health of the company, its employees or any of its stakeholders.

Sidle said it is important for employees who feel they are being bullied at work to first gauge the situation. They should ask themselves if they are being singled out.

“For example, they can ask, ‘Is the boss ridiculing me in public with the intention of humiliating me and making me look bad in front of others in the company?’” Sidle said. “Are they tolerating uncivil behavior that permeates the whole office but isn’t bullying such as being subjected to bosses and coworkers who lack good manners? Or are they working for a hard-driving manager who is not trying to cause harm, but instead is trying to bring out the best in them?”

Sidle said he would advise a person who feels he or she is being bullied not to fall into a bully’s trap by losing his or her cool and then engaging in unprofessional behavior. Instead, the person should take notes to file an accurate, fact-based report and use the company’s internal mechanisms to report the bully to authority figures.

“And network, practice stress management and keep yourself in a position that would make it possible to leave for greener pastures,” he advised. 

A very encouraging sign, said Sidle, is that new research is finally bearing out what he has long believed.

“Companies that invest in creating a positive work environment,” he said, “are more valuable in the long run.”   

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University operates a satellite campus in Tuscany, Italy, and offers programs at several locations throughout Connecticut and in New Mexico and California. UNH provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. The University enrolls approximately 6,400 students, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and College of Lifelong & eLearning, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide and its student-athletes compete in 16 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference.