How an oil rig shed its macho culture and became safer and more productive

May 31, 2013
May 31, 2013

Can a macho workplace shed its machismo? It happened on an oil rig, that most macho of work environments, say researchers who found that crew members on an offshore platform toned down their bluster and macho as they concentrated on a company program to improve workplace safety.

The scholars—Stanford’s Debra E. Meyerson, and Harvard’s Robin J. Ely—say that based on the changes they saw on the oil rig, maybe the same can happen in any workplace. If so, companies could drastically alter their work environments and boost gender equity as well.

To study two offshore oil platforms, Ely and Meyerson conducted extensive interviews over 19 months with male employees of two rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and sent a female member of their research team to work side by side with them for several weeks. Before Meyerson and Ely began their study, the corporate owner of the rig had launched an initiative to improve workplace safety to combat frequent on-the-job injuries. The safety program emphasized working together for the common good of the crew and taking personal responsibility. Although ratcheting down the machismo wasn’t a goal of the safety program, that did become one observed effect.

Ely and Meyerson said there is nothing wrong with exhibiting typically masculine traits. Employees, including these platform workers, often need to be decisive, assertive, aggressive, or emotionally detached to be effective. But plenty of jobs, from police officer and coal miner to litigator and Wall Street trader, encourage men to strut masculinity for its own sake and prove themselves as men—all the time. That behavior, known among organizational-behavior researchers as “doing gender,” is costly. It can lead to excessive risk-taking and poor decision making, interfere in recruits’ training, hurt men’s relations with each other, and marginalize women workers, write Ely and Meyerson. “If you’re taking risks just to prove your masculinity, you’re likely taking some bad risks,” said Ely in an interview.

The platform company that Ely and Meyerson studied launched a major safety initiative in the mid-1990s incorporating safety efforts in their day-to-day operations. The workforce was about 90% men with women employed primarily in housekeeping and catering jobs. The researchers conducted interviews during five visits to each platform, while another member of their team received training and worked as an entry-level production operator for a month.

Many of the workers were company longtimers who remembered the old days. In interviews, workers said that traditionally, platform culture discouraged asking for help, admitting mistakes, or building a sense of community. A longtime manager told the researchers that “the field foremen were kind of like a pack of lions. The guy that was in charge was the one who could basically out-perform and out-shout and out-intimidate all the others. … Intimidation was the name of the game… .” A production operator noted that “…back then there was much more profanity, more posturing. If you didn’t posture yourself in a position of power, then you set yourself up for ridicule … .”

To enhance worker safety, the company began to emphasize the notion of promoting the common good. It posted signs and symbols conveying ideas including “no one gets hurt” and “people supporting people.” Each worker received instructions in shutting the platform down and was told to do so if he thought safety demanded it. “We surmise that by putting safety front and center, the company inspired among workers a positive sense of shared fate or humanity and a willingness to transcend personal image in favor of collective purposes,” write Meyerson and Ely. As a result, because “demonstrating or protecting one’s masculine image would have undermined safety, community, or the company’s mission, men were willing to deviate from conventional masculine scripts.”

The company also broke from the industry’s traditions of equating competence with masculinity and rewarding “the biggest baddest roughnecks.” Instead, it rewarded those who showed the skills and behaviors needed to get the job done. A production operator said the employee who was most respected “knows what he’s doing, or if he doesn’t, he’ll take the time to do the research to understand what he’s doing.” Workers who behaved too aggressively didn’t get promoted, because they discouraged others from speaking up. “If proving my image becomes more important than doing the job well, there’s a potential problem,” said Ely.

In addition, a new emphasis on the importance of continual learning normalized the idea that men have limitations and encouraged them to pursue their goals without worrying about appearing vulnerable or unmanly. Fallibility became acceptable; it became okay for a man to seek help for the sake of safety. One of the platforms, for instance, established a “Millionaire Club” to “honor” workers whose mistakes had cost the company $1 million. Membership wasn’t a source of shame but rather a mark of being human, Ely and Meyerson write. That recognition of fallibility likely increased men’s willingness to let go of self-image concerns without fear of ostracism.

Ultimately, both platforms performed well in safety and productivity. Companywide, the accident rate fell by 84% and production was at an all-time high. Workers and managers attributed the improvement to the safety initiative that conveyed that “macho behavior was unsafe and therefore simply unacceptable.”

So what’s the lesson learned about gender? Getting men to stop acting male all the time undermines the assumption that gender-related behavior is inevitable and opens the doors to more non-stereotyped views of women, too. That’s good news for companies seeking greater gender equity. “We speculate that if you have a culture that doesn’t hold men accountable to a masculine ideal, it stands to reason that women would benefit as well,” said Ely.

But companies that want to discourage shows of masculinity can’t be heavy-handed about it. After all, the platform company didn’t set out to change what researchers call “the gender system” but just wanted to improve its safety record. If a company suspects that shows of masculinity are causing problems, it might, for instance, “think about becoming a learning organization because it requires people to admit mistakes, learn from failure, and ask for help—all behaviors that run counter to stereotypical masculinity,” said Ely.

An initiative directly telling employees to tone down stereotypical gender traits “will be too easily misunderstood,” Ely added. “Gender is such a hot topic. People have knee-jerk reactions and might automatically resist without considering that the real point is not to be less masculine or more feminine but rather to let go of the need to prove oneself on these dimensions.”

Louise Lee is a former staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal and Business Week. Her recent work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Stanford Business Magazine.

This piece was originally published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and has been reprinted with permission. Follow the school on Twitter at @StanfordBiz. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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