Some say workplace bullying is a real problem that’s just beginning to get the attention it deserves. Others say it’s just another excuse for whiny, entitled, thin-skinned employees who can’t handle a little friction to get out of work.

I’ve seen it both ways and every way in between. When it comes to how people treat each other at work, there’s quite a spectrum of obnoxious, disruptive behavior. Besides, we all have one thing in common: We all have issues. And like it or not, we bring our emotional baggage with us wherever we go, including the office.

That’s what makes the Petrie dish of drama and dysfunction we call the workplace so entertaining, until it turns our lives into a living hell, that is.

Workplace bullying has been around since telephones and typewriters. It’s annoying to deal with but it isn’t rocket science. It only mushrooms into catastrophe under three conditions: when it’s part of the leadership culture, when management doesn’t deal with it and, apparently, when it happens in the National Football League.

The strange case of Miami Dolphins linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito provides a good backdrop for understanding how to deal with this sort of thing, or not.

Not into football? No worries. Let me catch you up: Martin walked out on the team amidst claims he’s being bullied. He’s apparently getting counseling and treatment for it. The alleged bully, Incognito, has been suspended. There are all sorts of ugly texts and videos, allegations of racism, investigations, lawyers, press conferences and all that.

It’s everything we’ve come to expect from a front-page scandal. And that’s really the point. You see, this is so not how it happens in the real working world.

Martin and Incognito are both getting paid multimillion dollar salaries while sitting on their butts waiting for the league, the team, the player’s union, the independent investigator, the lawyers, the media and everyone else to figure out what happened, who’s at fault and all that.

In the real world, we actually have to deal with it ourselves. Employees usually either work out their differences, have escalating feuds that never end, burn out, quit, get fired, or go quietly insane. There’s no money, no coddling, no media attention, and for the most part, no right or wrong either.

When I was a young engineer, I had a running feud with a coworker. When it had gone on long enough, we both cried to our managers. One day our boss’s boss called us into his office. He sat us down and said, “Work out your differences or we’ll fire you both. Now get your asses back to work.” So we worked it out.

It happens in the executive ranks, too,

A few years ago Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky and Apple’s Scott Forstall were suddenly out the door with nearly identical stories: both executives were brilliant and accomplished but so abrasive and divisive that they were more trouble than they were worth.

And Pfizer chief executive Jeffrey Kindler was forced to resign over his micromanaging and abrasive management style. There were allegations that he’d publicly berated senior executives and even brought some to tears. That led to an open revolt among his staff, a board confrontation and Kindler’s ouster.

More often than not, when the bully is the boss or a highly valued exec, it’s the employees who have to either suck it up or quit.

An executive of a large Japanese company once gave me advice on handling a micromanaging boss by way of an old proverb: “If you wait by the river long enough,” he said, “you’ll see the body of your enemy float by.” In other words, be patient; bad people usually do themselves in.

Oftentimes, things don’t work themselves out and somebody has to take action. In that case, here’s my advice for leaders and employees:

Leaders: Deal with it. If a problem comes to your attention, talk to those involved, find out what’s going on and use your best judgment. Bottom line: don’t let problem employees or managers harm the effectiveness of your organization. If they’re more trouble than they’re worth, the quicker you get rid of them the better.

Employees: Deal with it. Try working things out and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes – the usual conflict resolution stuff. Consider that the other person may be reacting to you. In other words, your hands aren’t as clean as you might think. If that doesn’t work, decide what’s best. Your options are: wait by the river, go over his head, or quit. Bottom line: If it’s affecting your sanity, quit. No job is worth that.

P.S. The Miami Dolphins’ Bullygate happened two years ago. Last week, Martin was taken into custody and a school closed after he posted a picture on Instagram that could be construed as a threat to his former high school and Dolphin teammates. 

A version of this originally appeared on

Image credit Terry Freedman via Flickr