1 of 2
Matt Rourke, Associated Press
Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper replaces his helmet after taking a swing during baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

SALT LAKE CITY — Things got heated last week at the New York Mets’ Citi Field when visiting Phillies manager Gabe Kapler ran onto the field to protest a call during Cesar Hernandez’s at-bat. Phillies star Bryce Harper followed Kapler out of the dugout and pushed him out of the way to continue the tirade.

Arguing pitches, balls and strikes with the umpire is nothing new for baseball. Neither is having hot-headed players or over-wrought managers. In fact, it’s an accepted part of sports. But professional athletes are still professionals, and tantrums in the workplace have been historically frowned upon, whether your office is in a cubicle or on a ballfield.

Workplace tantrums are hard on any team, beyond just distraction or embarrassment. So why do some bosses spare their star employees at the risk of the rest of the office?

Corporate consultant Carley Sime dissects the characteristics of a toxic coworker in an article for Forbes, listing traits including narcissism and win-at-all-costs tendencies as well as behaviors such as lying and muting the creativity of others. And all this self focus is just plain rude, she says.

In an interview with the National Institutes of Health, Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, labels toxic workplace behaviors as “incivility,” and she explains that this kind of discourteous conduct is contagious.

“It’s a bug, it’s a virus, and we can catch it anywhere. … It affects our emotions, motivations, performance and how we treat others.”

Porath explains that rudeness or disrespect at work distracts employees and zaps their productivity and motivation with some companies estimating losses in the millions of dollars because of negative behavior.

Additionally, studies show that this negative behavior — even from one employee — is enough to create a toxic workplace.

According to a Harvard Business School study, top workplace performers need to be managed on the flipside of the coin — their potential for harm to an organization’s performance.

The study found that employees fired for toxic behavior were more productive than their non-toxic colleagues. It also showed that employees who are slower to create their product are less likely to engage in workplace toxicity.

It would seem, then, that because of their output, workplace tantrum-throwers are worth their risk. But study authors Michael Housman of Cornerstone OnDemand and Dylan Minor of Harvard Business School found their results disagree with this approach.

" It’s a bug, it’s a virus, and we can catch it anywhere. … It affects our emotions, motivations, performance and how we treat others. "
Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business

“Although toxic workers are quicker than the average worker, they are not necessarily more productive in a quality-adjusted sense. In the long run, these kinds of workers are not likely to improve overall organizational performance.”

And when the organization considers the costs — financial and emotional — Housman and Minor find the approach is clear. “Avoiding a toxic worker (or converting them to an average worker) provides more benefit than finding and retaining a superstar.”

As an employee displays toxic workplace behaviors, a boss’s failure to curtail them proves especially problematic.

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the repercussions of a boss’ decision to shield a toxic worker.

“Mostly, organizational or corporate culture is driven from the top-down approach,” the study finds, “and if the leadership is not concerned about the toxic environment, it can be difficult to shift the culture.”

" It’s troubling. I’m out there doing everything I can to win a game. I need my guys behind me and they weren’t. "
Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta

Whether ignoring a worker’s behavior or justifying it, the study explains the need for any team leader to realize that a team is only as good as its people:

“Unfortunately, toxic workplaces exist in many organizations and are generally characterized by a culture of dysfunctional dynamics despite the awareness that human capital is the contributing factor for any organization’s sustainable growth and innovation.”

After last week’s incident, Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta expressed his frustration to reporters about how both Harper and Kapler handled things during the game.

25 comments on this story

“He’s (Harper) got to understand, we need him in right field,” Arrieta said. “I don’t care how bad the umpire is. He wasn’t great for either side. I’m out there trying to make pitches, he misses some calls. So what? We need him (Harper) out there.”

Arrieta continued: “It’s troubling. I’m out there doing everything I can to win a game. I need my guys behind me and they weren’t.”

So, what could baseball teams learn from the business world? When a manager focuses on creating policies encouraging employee productivity instead of rewarding individual, toxic behavior, suggests the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study, a win can result for the whole team.