Why a Team’s Culture Can’t Be “Incognito”

The story surrounding the Miami Dolphins and whether Richie Incognito bullied rookie teammate Jonathan Martin has more drama than seven years of “Sex and the City” and may drag out in the tabloid magazines for just as long.

But underlying all the accusations, rumors, opinions and jokes about the Miami Dolphins is a leadership lesson that all organizations should heed: When leadership loses control of the culture, it erodes trust, commitment and positive results.

Sounds fairly simple, but the Dolphins aren’t the only ones to get it wrong. So, it’s time for another play-by-play of how such debacles can be avoided at other organizations:

  1. Don’t hand off the culture. “If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening,” says Edgar Schein, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. Former Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith skewered the “toxic culture” of the company in the New York Times, calling it “destructive” and saying he could “no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.” Martin reportedly sent Incognito a text after the controversy erupted that said, “It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all. It’s just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little.”  As former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner said, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.” This may be something the Dolphin’s leadership needs to think long and hard about.
  2. Deliver a consistent message. There are reports that other football teams didn’t believe Incognito to be leadership material, but that’s not really important at this point. What is important is that once leaders choose someone to help them deliver the cultural and leadership message, they must always ensure that the message is consistent.  A  BlessingWhite survey of 7,000 individuals from around the world on employee engagement finds that executives establish trust only through a consistent message, plenty of communications and an alignment of practices and behaviors.
  3. Don’t sideline disputes. No one expects a pro football team to behave like they’re having tea with the Queen of England. But leadership has to ensure that in any organization, discussions and actions don’t cross the line of what is considered acceptable behavior. Organizations should put their values in writing and demonstrate them through their actions. If there are disputes that are erupting past those parameters, then they need to be quickly addressed. Letting resentments grow among team members undermines the culture and threatens goals. Leadership has to be ready to step in and resolve problems and team members have to be coached that those lines cannot be crossed or they will face consequences.

As for what the Miami Dolphins will eventually learn from all this, let’s hope they take heart from the words of Vince Lombardi, the great football coach: “The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.”

What other lessons do you think organizations can learn from this controversy?

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  • Steve

    To try and compare the locker room of an NFL football team with the board room and culture within corporate america is a stretch..

    • Anita Bruzzese

      It’s more than a locker room to boardroom comparison. NFL teams are big business, and I think that you have to recognize that they need good leadership, just as any business does in order to succeed.

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  • Maurice Brown

    It all depends on the corp.