Field-based research can take HBS faculty members to some unusual places. Professor Robin Ely’s recent working paper, “Unmask-ing Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Male Identity,” is based on a study she conducted while living among crew members on an offshore oil platform, 130 miles off the coast of southern Louisiana. “I interviewed men involved in all aspects of the platform’s operation,” she relates. “In the dorm where I slept, someone from the night shift took over my bunk while I was observing and interviewing the day shift. The food was great, and most of the time I arrived and departed by helicopter.” Looking back on the project, she rates it “the best field research experience I’ve ever had.”

How is it that a scholar who specializes in race and gender relations decides to study workers on an oil rig, an isolated setting with low gender diversity?

In our research on gender, my colleague from Stanford, Debra Meyer-son, and I have written about how organizations often conflate concepts of leadership competence with images of masculinity and how such conflation disadvantages women in the workplace. On the two platforms in this study, management had implemented some innovative approaches to leadership development to reduce unsafe behaviors stereotypically associated with “macho” men, such as taking unnecessary risks, refusing to ask questions or to appear vulnerable, and pressuring coworkers to prove themselves through acts of physical bravery. The goal of this company’s training was to enhance employee safety and reliability in a very hazardous workplace. We were intrigued by the prospect of an organization that had deliberately worked to decouple the concepts of leadership and unsafe actions associated with stereotypical masculine behavior.

Could you describe the kind of behaviors the company was trying to eliminate?

I can tell you how the men themselves talked about their past experiences. We interviewed and observed people in all kinds of jobs, from the roustabouts who were doing the dirtiest work to the engineers and control room operators. Many were veterans of offshore work environments where proving their worth meant putting themselves in real physical danger, even when the work didn’t require it. Even when an impulsive decision could have led to an explosion, or failure to tie in to a scaffolding could have resulted in a deadly fall, many reported that disregard for safety, fierce independence, and bravado had been badges of honor.

In contrast, the two platforms that served as our research sites had been designed to create a new kind of offshore operating environment, where safety was the priority. Management attacked the safety issue from the top down, investing extensively in leadership training, policies, and practices intended to change the culture.

What did the men say about the training?

Many interviewees contrasted the pro forma safety training they had received in previous jobs — where everyone knew the real priorities were still cost cutting and speed — with the company’s current commitment to “walking the talk.”

Could you give an example?

Whereas on other rigs, workers who made mistakes might be punished, on these drilling platforms the orientation was more around learning from failures. Management put in place explicit processes for analyzing what went wrong and implementing procedures to address the problem.

As a result, over time, there was a perceivable shift in the culture, where being physically tough, technically infallible, and emotionally detached were no longer the most highly valued qualities. Characteristics that gained importance included a willingness to ask questions, to listen, to admit mistakes, and to acknowledge the need to depend on the advice or assistance of coworkers. The changes were designed to enhance safety and reliability, but the intervention had the unintended consequence of changing the way many of these men behaved and thought about themselves.

In your paper, you use the term “purposive vulnerability.” Is that the quality these workers acquired?

That’s one way we talk about it, but it wasn’t that these guys were walking around with their hearts on their sleeves, or that anyone had become more afraid of the dangerous aspects of their profession. It was more that, when it was necessary to be vulnerable in order to be safe and to work reliably and effectively, they were willing to do that.

How did the change in culture benefit the company?

These organizational changes, which were instituted around the company as a whole, resulted in an 84 percent decline in the accident rate. During the same period, productivity (measured in number of barrels produced), efficiency (cost per barrel), and reliability (production “up” time) came to exceed the industry’s previous benchmark.

What did the men think of the changes?

Everyone we talked to preferred the change in culture and saw it as enhancing the quality of their lives and work experiences. We had some evidence that the experience had broadened their sense of what it meant to be a man.

In fact, we actually posed the question “What does it mean to you to be a man?” fully realizing that they might think we were crazy to ask something so New Age and personal! Some of them did respond, though, and one even said that being a man meant to him being “more like a woman” in being nurturing, being in touch with emotions, and relying on and caring about coworkers. Even though those were behaviors we had observed, we didn’t expect such a candid response.

How does this study fit into your broader interest in workplace gender issues?

Our research speaks to the question of how men construct identities in the workplace, and the role organizations can play in shaping this process. In other research, we have seen that conventional masculinity often becomes the performance standard, even when an alternative standard would be more beneficial to the organization, not to mention to women employees with an interest in career advancement. Understanding the process that brought about such a significant change in the way people enact gender fits nicely with our research interests.

Are there lessons that are transferable to other male-dominated, corporate settings?

Well, there are two aspects of this environment that would be difficult to replicate. First, these men live where they work, at least for two weeks at a time. That isolation tends to intensify the extent to which an organization can influence behavior. Second, their motivation to change — personal safety — was unusually compelling.

But we did identify three conditions that could in theory exist in any organization. Having a connective purpose — the sense that one’s purpose at work contributes to others — is the first condition. Second, you need to cultivate an atmosphere of psychological safety, where people are assured that behaving in ways that aren’t stereotypically masculine won’t result in ostracism or punishment. And third, through its norms and practices, the organization needs to decouple the concepts of masculinity and competence.

How might this study influence the way people think about diversity issues?

I hope this research draws attention to the implicit influence of gender on work practices. If you can see beyond approaches to work that are dictated by cultural tradition and instead identify what is actually required to do a job well, you can create organizations that are better at learning, where people from different backgrounds, with dissimilar approaches to problem solving, can have a strong impact on effectiveness. Whether you work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico or in a cubicle on Wall Street, seeing how elements of the status quo actually inhibit desired outcomes — and breaking with those elements — is the real value-added of diversity in the workplace.

—Deborah Blagg


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