Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 23;   June 15, 2022: We Can 'Moneyball' Bullying

We Can 'Moneyball' Bullying


Capturing data about incidents of bullying is helpful in creating awareness of the problem. But it's like trying to drive a car by looking only in the rearview mirror. Forward-looking data that predicts bullying incidents is also necessary.
Oakland Coliseum, home field of the Oakland A's

Oakland Coliseum, home field of the Oakland A's professional baseball team. This stadium is the setting for the events depicted in the book and film Moneyball. Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic by redlegsfan21.

By now, there's a good chance that you've read Michael Lewis's book titled, Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game. [Lewis 2004] And an even better chance that you've seen the film, Moneyball, with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Quick summary: In 2002, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's baseball team, and his assistant, Peter Brand, assemble a surprisingly successful team on a shoestring budget. True story. They do it by attending to, among other things, statistics that were designed to focus not on what makes a star player, but on what matters when it comes to winning games. And the stats that matter for winning games turn out to be a bit different from what other baseball general managers were using.

The lesson: in management decision-making, statistics aren't everything, but using the right stats can be a critical success factor. In other words, focusing on what makes for success can be a key to success. In one sense, it's a brilliant insight. In another sense, well duh.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when I ran into the lessons of moneyball in a podcast/public-radio-show called "This American Life," in an episode titled, "A City Walks Into an Investigation." [Calhoun 2022] Here the application of moneyball thinking was early detection of abusive police officers. As reported in the podcast, a group at the University of Chicago is "moneyballing" the detection of abusive police officers. They discovered two important lessons in their data [Fassbender 2021]

  1. Collect the right data. For example, in policing, it isn't enough to have data about use of force. A more useful metric is the use of disproportionate force.
  2. Officers who are outliers in one metric are usually outliers in several metrics.

Listening Focusing on what makes for success can
be a key to success. In one sense, it's
a brilliant insight. In another, well duh.
to this podcast, I couldn't help asking myself, "Can we apply moneyball thinking to workplace bullying?" And of course, it turns out we can. The field is called HR Analytics. In analogy to what was learned with respect to baseball, we can expect that we need to take a fresh approach to data collection for workplace bullying. In baseball, this practice is called sabermetrics. Applied to workplace bullying, it consists of a set of results-oriented data practices. Examples of these practices are below.

Data management and analysis aren't free
Data collection, management, and analysis require resources. We must design the metrics, determine how to collect and analyze the data, and maintain its integrity after collection. All that activity requires investment.
Any patterns present in the data might not emerge for many quarters. So we must commit resources to these efforts for a period of time before we receive much of value from the investment.
The data must relate to a specific business purpose
Unless the effort advances the organizational mission, the necessary investment will be difficult to sustain over a period of time long enough to achieve useful results.
Find ways to demonstrate how the results of the effort directly advance the organizational mission. Specifically, for most organizations, reducing the incidence of bullying inside the organization isn't explicitly part of the organizational mission. That's why it's necessary to state explicitly how such reduction relates to the mission. For example, if the fictional corporation BooksByKids, Inc., advocates for public-library-centered creative writing experiences for children, media reports about bullying inside BBKI could prove catastrophic. At BBKI, an effective approach to workplace bullying actually does advance the organizational mission.
The data must be role-specific
Almost every significant organizational effort is subject to pressures to reduce costs. In response to these pressures, there arises a strong temptation to collect one-size-fits-all data across diverse organizational roles. This happens because such an approach seems to be more cost-efficient. Cost-efficient it may be, but the data collected that way is unlikely to yield real value.
It's necessary to collect data that can signal abusive behavior in the roles studied. And that data differs from role to role, because the resources available to abusers vary from role to role. A project sponsor and the VP of Human Resources can both abuse subordinates, but they can do so in very different ways. Two examples: The project sponsor can overrule the project manager, and gamble that a certain kind of risk won't materialize, while the VP of Human Resources can suppress (or misdirect) an investigation of the organizational incidence of bullying.

Examples of role-specific abuse data

Below are examples of role-specific data that could prove valuable for identifying individuals who use bullying or intimidation as methods for carrying out their roles. The role used in these examples is Project Sponsor. None of these items fall within the common understanding of bullying. But they might be useful indicators of an inclination toward bullying or other abusive behavior.

Rejected risks
When the Project Manager or the project team flags a risk to the project, the Project Sponsor rejects the notion. A basis often cited is that the risk is unlikely to materialize, or that mitigating it is too costly: "If it happens, we'll deal with it then." The Project Manager's assessment of the likelihood of the risk materializing is ignored, but when the risk does materialize, the Project Manager is usually held accountable for faulty planning.
Scope expansion that leads to delays and overtime
Some Project Sponsors expand the project's scope to include "pet" objectives that cannot be realized within the budget and schedule provided. Project Sponsors who expand scope against the advice of the Project Manager or the project team are taking steps that are especially provocative. They expect the project team to "get it done" anyway.
Decisions that lead to avoidable technical debt formation
Avoiding all technical debt formation is impossible. But some can be avoided. Taking steps that lead to unnecessary formation of technical debt could indicate an excessive focus on personal success at the expense of the organization. A pattern of such events could indicate a level of disregard for others that might be correlated with bullying behavior.

Last words

Incidents that meet the descriptions above don't fit the conventional definitions of bullying. But they are consistent with a level of disrespect for the expertise of others. It's reasonable to suppose that they could have predictive value in assessing the likelihood of future incidents that do meet the definition of bullying. Tracking such incidents could be illuminating. Go to top Top  Next issue: Double Binds at Work  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!


[Lewis 2004]
Michael Lewis. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Calhoun 2022]
Ben Calhoun and Ira Glass. "A City Walks Into an Investigation," This American Life podcast, #760. January 28, 2022. Available here. Retrieved 30 May 2022. Back
[Fassbender 2021]
Melissa Fassbender. "UChicago Alums, Researchers Develop Evidence-Based Police Force Management and Early Intervention System," Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Chicago, June 8, 2021. Available here. Retrieved 30 May 2022. Back

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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

A thiefLooking the Other Way
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
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When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right time to act.
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Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
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Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember in the moment.
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Verbal abuse at work uses written or spoken language to disparage, disadvantage, or harm others. Perpetrators favor tactics they can subsequently deny having used. Even more favored are abusive tactics that are so subtle that others don't notice them.

See also Workplace Bullying and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

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When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
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