“Safety is our number one priority.” This is a common refrain in many organizations, and it has particularly been an area of more recent emphasis in riskier environments: construction, working with heavy equipment, mining and oil & gas exploration.
A recent article in Quartz highlights some interesting—and arguably unintended—results from a recent workplace effort to improve safety in that most challenging of physical environments: the off-shore oil rig. By promoting behaviours that were found to enhance safety (asking for help, promoting co-operation and community, valuing doing research before taking action and placing safety before production) researchers also found a corresponding decline in aggressive, ‘macho’, power-based behaviour most associated with male posturing.
As described in the article, ‘doing gender’ wasn’t about not valuing male characteristics such as confidence, assertiveness or emotional detachment—all of which can be essential to survive and function in high-pressure, high-risk demanding environments. Rather, it was about dispelling the need to posture all the time: to intimidate, to project power and to demonstrate bravery (not the only interpretation of course) by taking higher-level and unnecessary (and arguably stupid) risks.
The implications from this study are significant in many contexts, not just in the oil patch. When we look at many of the failures in recent times (whether they are the decisions and behaviours that led to the financial crisis, or the failure of political negotiations or the misguided judgements that lead to performance-enhancing—or politically ill-advised—drug use) there is an underlying theme of posturing, of ego and of locker-room behaviour. They are the result of competition rather than co-operation; of win-lose mindsets rather than seeking positive and appropriate outcomes.
A very real question, however, is what is required to transform these behaviours in the corporate tower, the political realm or the sports field. These are, after all, the same environments where macho, take-no-prisoners approaches are celebrated and venerated (at least by those who personify and perpetuate the stereotypes). As noted by the researchers discussed in the Quartz article, the organization in question didn’t intend to directly tackle gendered behaviour; the observed behavioural shifts were a consequence, rather than an objective. Addressing challenges in other contexts, therefore, would seem to also require confronting the undesired behaviours directly and identifying those which are more productive, more valued and have a positive impact going forward.
This highlights the need to change the dialogue in organizations, in that it directly puts on the table many of the ‘undiscussables’ that more frequently hide beneath it. It requires connecting the dots in highlighting what behaviour is most appropriate (and therefore should be most valued) in producing effective results, and being willing to identify and confront behaviour that is counterproductive. Difficult conversations, but if you can have them on an oil rig, I would argue that you can have them anywhere.