Today’s Certainty

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is ambiguity…..

Starting Points

Have you heard of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity)?  I hadn’t until recently, but I’ve since learned that VUCA is an acronym used to characterize today’s business environment and the organizations in which we work.  Apparently it has been around for awhile. and owes at least some portion of its origin to the military.

Beyond its descriptive accuracy, what immediately struck me about VUCA was the significance of the “A” part.  Going off-road a bit and thinking of VUCA as an equation rather than solely as the intended acronym, the “A” may be viewed as either a sum or a product of its contributing and preceding variables.  In other words, ambiguity becomes the result.  Ambiguity about what, you ask?  Can’t you tell? Quite a bit, it seems these days.

Corporate America

Yes, it’s truly amazing how much ambiguity exists these days in Corporate America and to what extent employees are expected to accept a steady diet of it.  It has definitely become a hallmark of the new normal and presents itself each and everyday as the quiet antithesis of the structural near-certainty in which many of us cut our corporate teeth.  My, how things have changed.

Organizations, career paths and succession plans were at one time much clearer.  Corporate strategies, business unit objectives, and tactical plans were locked and loaded.  With these structural elements in place and not changing much, those skilled at structural analysis were well-equipped to analyze, set course, and prosper.  Linearity, clarity, and predictability in large part defined Corporate America and those who were successful within its hallowed halls.

Sometime not all that long ago, things changed. Whatever it was occurred without fanfare or announcement, as the lines really started to blur.  To simply imply a visual lack of clarity as full explanation understates the effect.  It’s more like the entire building is metaphorically shifting in unfamiliar rhythms. Once sturdy organizational and strategic girders have gone into sway.

Some employees seem to deal with this better than others. The former appear to have more comfort with ambiguity. They consistently demonstrate an ability to combine traditional linear thinking with non-linear adaptation.

SEALing  the Deal

Asking my SEAL (Ret) buddy Randy about ambiguity in the workplace was a little bit like asking Babe Ruth about baseball or Einstein about science.  As I explained the concept and how ambiguity added up to a considerably more difficult workplace within which to navigate, he just looked at me.  As I was processing his initial response, I recalled that his son’s recent Facebook post showed Randy manning a machine gun mounted in the back of a US military pickup truck with the caption, “Dad at the office.”  Puts things in perspective, I’d say.

By definition, the SEAL workplace covers it all – sea, air, and land.  There’s an awful lot that can go wrong during a SEAL mission, so it makes a lot of sense that VUCA would have applicability to these military operations.  Once past his initial bemusement at my explanation of the concept to him, Randy had this to say. “It’s a series of what if’s and thinking on your feet. You have to rely on your teammates, and your teammates have to rely on you.  Lives depend on it.”

SEALs have a saying that the only easy day was yesterday.  Although increased ambiguity in our own work environments may lead us to similar observations, these guys really deal with some major ambiguity in their work.  To combat less clarity and linearity than used to exist in our workplaces, I recommend a conversation with a SEAL as a great way to develop greater awareness that there’s ambiguity and then there’s Ambiguity.

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Personal Foul

“It’s a big gain, but this one’s coming back. There’s a flag on the play.  They got someone on the Dolphins offensive line for a personal foul.  This play is under review.”

Penalty Flag
Upon Further Review

Penalty flags thrown during a football game. Makes sense, but so what? It’s the middle of the pro football season, so this play call is pretty normal stuff for the NFL on Sunday afternoon. Yet another penalty flag, challenge and review process to file under the “make a run to the kitchen during the commercial break” category, right?  Well, not so fast to the refrigerator this time, as what’s happening “under the hood” in the review of this play is really quite different and reflects badly on the flagged offender’s employers.

The call on the field turns out to be a personal foul alright, but it’s for bullying.  Suddenly two 300+ pound offensive linemen aren’t so obscure anymore and have become conspicuous household names as their story makes news headlines.  Once past the almost SNL-like irony and juxtaposition of bullying in the NFL, this story brings some major workplace issues into focus.

Not So Incognito Now

In this story, Richie suddenly ain’t so incognito these days.  Flagged and suspended indefinitely by his employers for alleged bullying of a coworker, Miami Dolphin offensive guard Richie Incognito says he’s just “trying to weather the storm“, knowing “this will pass“.  Meanwhile, alleged victim (since his rookie days last season) offensive tackle Jonathan Martin has temporarily left the team to seek help with emotional issues.

As reported by major news outlets, this is Incognito in a voice message to Martin. “Hey, wassup, you half (expletive) piece of (expletive). I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. I’ll (expletive) in your (expletive) mouth. I’m gonna slap your (expletive) mouth, I’m gonna slap your real mother across the face (laughter). (Expletive) you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

For his part, Incognito is hardly contrite, “This isn’t an issue about bullying, this is of mine and Jon’s relationship,” Incognito said. “You can ask anyone in the Miami locker room, ‘Who had Jon Martin’s back the absolute most?’ and they’ll undoubtedly tell you me.”  Translation: Richie sees himself as protector and mentor. Interesting take.

Two Kinds of Harassment

What would you do if one of your coworkers left you a message like this? Would you confront the person? Or would you report it to your employer?  Depending on nature and culture of the workplace, most people would probably go the company route.  However, it’s an interesting call to have to make.  Throwing the penalty flag is the easy part, but what to do about it as an employee involves a more difficult set of choices that are often accompanied by some degree of personal and professional risk.

A good starting point for analyzing this situation is the concept of legal versus illegal harassment. Illegal harassment would clearly include racial discrimination and poses obvious legal, financial, and public relations risks for a major employer like the NFL or Miami Dolphins.  On the other hand, while other behavior may constitute harassment, it may not break a law.  Therefore, there is less risk to an employer, and accordingly, corporate stewards are less likely to intervene.  In the end, Human Resource departments are going to protect the company, so legal harassment often goes unaddressed.  This is a key workplace truism and one that is not widely understood by employees.

Why is this differentiation so important in the Incognito-Martin story?  Check the content in the alleged Incognito message above.  See above as that first “(expletive)” reportedly begins with an N. That’s where Richie screwed up and put his employers in the position of needing to act.  At minimum, Richie’s communication expresses some degree of racial insensitivity toward his co-worker and potentially exposes his employer to discriminatory workplace claims. Richie may have also erred as Martin’s parents are both lawyers.

Corporate Culture

It’s been widely reported that Martin missed a portion of the team’s off-season activities, and that this prompted unidentified members of management to request that player leadership council member (aka team leader) Incognito “toughen up” Martin.  Many think Richie just took things a bit too far in performing his assigned task.  Problematic for the team and the league is that this quickly resonates as entirely possible.  Resulting is much talk about rookie hazing, which is more bad PR for the league.

What’s clearly at issue here is the workplace culture in the Miami Dolphins organization and the entire NFL.  An intangible asset that was built from toughness and a certain boys-will-be-boys locker room culture suddenly becomes a liability.  In non-football business, we call that asset impairment.  Compounding mixed messages is talk of veteran players (employees) needing to exhibit leadership behaviors to police their own workplace. This has a certain ring of inmates running asylums.

Support the Bully – Blame the Victim

Current teammates and fellow members of the Dolphin player leadership council have rallied in their support of Incognito.  Hard to tell from up here in the press box, but it could be that they feel they have a better chance of winning games with All-Pro starting guard Incognito on the field than they have without him, at a time where their season’s trajectory is at its crossroads.  Like teen girls and mean girls, they may be going along with the bully to avoid being the next victim.  They may see Richie as less than stable, who knows?  Check out (link) this Incognito resume item for additional insight into one particularly boorish incident.

Blaming the victim dutifully makes its appearance as further evidence of the applicable workplace culture.  Some indeed hold the view that a 300+ pound guy like Martin who plays a sometimes violent sport for a living should be tough enough to stand up for himself and settle any differences with Incognito mano-a-mano.  The reasoning goes that Martin should just step up and punch the bully right in the nose…as if fist-fights are an acceptable way of resolving differences with coworkers.  Again, interesting workplace culture.

Cycle of Abuse

Experts tell us that bullies (abusers) were often bullied (abused) at some time in their lives.  They’re simply doing to others what’s been done to them. According to Miami Herald reporter Linda Robertson (link), Richie was teased as a child because “he was a big fat kid“.  And then at some point, football presented Richie with the opportunity and culture in which his physical attributes could allow him to both excel and control.  It becomes like an engineer or accountant who realizes that the same nerdy characteristics that once invited locker stuffings and wedgies, now provide the edge to bully others and feel successful at work in adulthood.

It also becomes a matter of the behavior not being addressed in the workplace and corporate incentive systems reinforcing the bullying behavior. Maybe Lady Gaga and BizSinc were on to something in this previous post. Not stopping this behavior in children emboldens them as adults to master this dysfunctional craft and actually derive profit from it.  Many of us have seen the results of this cultivation in our own workplaces.

Gannon Speaks Out

Fellow University of Delaware Blue Hen and former NFL star quarterback Rich Gannon has a thing or two to say on the subject and gets it right.  Calling it a “loser’s mentality” and “dysfunctional” based on what he observed first-hand as an Oakland Raider, Gannon says,

“I have a very strong take on bullying….I have absolutely no tolerance for this type of behavior. I’ve seen  firsthand how this can divide and really destroy a locker room, a team and quite  frankly, an entire organization,” Gannon said. “I went to an organization in Oakland, which quite frankly made me sick. This culture and environment existed out there with older players bullying younger players. At one point, I remember coming into the locker room my very first year there, and I saw a group of  defensive lineman had our young tight end tied up with tape. They were punching  him. They were putting icy-hot and baby powder with water on this guy. They were trying to demoralize the player.”

“Where veteran guys would go to the rookies. I remember getting a call during training camp from a couple young players who were rookies and said ‘you’re not gonna believe this. They want us to take them to dinner and they said because I’m a first round pick, I’ve gotta pay $10,000 and my roommate’s a second round pick and he’s gotta pay $7500.'”That’s the amount of money they were gonna make them pay to go into San Francisco where they’d go to I’m sure adult entertainment clubs and to go to places where they can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on dinner. Bruce, they would take these guys to dinner and they would order two or three entrees each and then they would order the most expensive wine off the wine list – $12-$1500 bottles, bottles of Don Perignon. And then they would take bottles home with them. They would tell the waiter ‘bring me two more bottles, put it on the tab.'”

“It’s one thing to have a tradition where we’re gonna have the rookies sing their fight song. That doesn’t hurt anybody. That’s maybe a rite of passage if you will. They’ve been asked sometimes in certain training camps to put on a rookie talent show, to go up there and sing or dance or make fun or tell jokes or whatever. That’s fine. But that’s really where it should begin and end… It reeks of bad leadership everywhere in the building. I think as a coach it’s your job to create a culture and environment where that doesn’t exist.”

Well said, Mr. Gannon.

Next Play – You Make the Call

Who knows where the next play will go?  Pass, run, off-tackle, end-around….who knows? It’s fascinating on many levels.  We will soon see whether Incognito’s employment prospects are impacted as the NFL investigation progresses. Is he right that it will soon pass, thus tacitly reinforcing his behavior and NFL culture? Will Jonathan Martin return to a workplace that is currently supporting Incognito? Will employment and civil rights law further impact the situation? Will there be legal actions taken, and if so, how will the NFL’s and Miami Dolphins’ responses be judged versus their legal obligations?  It could turn out that they have acted appropriately in response to potential illegality of Incognito’s voice message.  However, an apparently dysfunctional pattern of workplace culture and legal harassment could continue.  These things are normally very hard to change in any workplace, and the NFL is definitely not your typical workplace.  That’s why it’s important that someone of Gannon’s NFL stature speaks out as strongly as he did, providing first-hand accounts and a well-delivered rebuke.

Richie tells his side of the story and presents us with a different perspective in this interview (link) that aired on the 11/10/13 Fox NFL pre-game show.  Does it affect your view of him and this whole situation?

Gotta go – it’s almost time for kickoff!….Hmmm.

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