Ritchie Incognito and the Question of Culture

Ritchie Incognito is a bully.  Unless the tweets, threats, voicemail messages, and conversations attributed to him are completely fabricated, he’s a bully and worse.  The fact that the drama of which he is the central figure is being played out in the NFL as opposed to in a schoolyard does not make the issue any less pressing.

Earlier this week, in a prepared statement, Miami Dolphins head coach, Joe Philbin, read a prepared statement in which he took responsibility for his football team’s workplace.  He was specifically talking about the culture, and in saying that, he was no different from tens of thousands of the-buck-stops-here employers across the country.

Culture, however, can be a tricky thing.  It can’t be disseminated at an all-hands meeting, and it is not created by a retreat workshop-inspired mission statement.  Instead, culture occupies the blank space between policies.  Culture is defined by how people relate to each other, view their organization, and perceive their roles in it.  The culture of a place is built and nurtured by everyone who belongs there.

To be sure, management can set the tone – leading by example and consistently determining in ways large and small what does and does not fit.  In other words, management can light the torch, but it is up to each individual to carry it and keep it lit.

In the weeks, perhaps months, to come, much will be made of Ritchie Incognito’s character.  That’s all well and good, but Ritchie Incognito is likely gone.  Sports Illustrated quotes “highly placed team sources” as saying that Incognito will “never play another down” for the Dolphins.  In a larger sense, however, that’s not the story that matters.

What matters is the culture – how it was created, how the behavior was tolerated or even encouraged, and how it is to be fixed.  This is the story that should be watched carefully by business leaders in every industry and region.  After all , the creation of a culture that inspires, particularly on the ashes of one that demeans, matters far more than the fate of one misguided 30 year old lineman.

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