Corporate culture: Macho men

Being too much of a stereotype is bad for business, no matter what you do.

Oil rig workers are often perceived as daring men filled with so much bravado that they will never ask for help. But being too macho is unnecessary and can actually get in the way of a job well done, according to new research by Robin Ely, professor of organizational behaviour at Harvard Business School and Debra Meyerson, associate professor of education at Stanford University. And that goes for both blue-collar workers and white-collar professionals.

Ely and Meyerson examined oil rigs where management over the past 15 years encouraged workers to focus on big-picture company goals, such as improving safety and admitting errors, rather than an individual worker’s strength, daring and technical prowess. This strategy stopped the “biggest, baddest roughnecks” from rising to leadership roles, in favour of team players who focused on an organization’s overall mission and were open to learning and listening. The result was an 84% decrease in accident rates, as well as increased productivity, efficiency and reliability.

The researchers point out that there isn’t a problem with stereotypical masculine traits, such as aggressiveness, strength and emotional detachment, but there can be when men try to prove themselves on these dimensions. “By creating conditions that focus people on the real requirements of the job, rather than on stereotypical images believed to equate with competence,” write Ely and Meyerson, “organizations can free employees to do their best work.”

Some scandals, such as the Enron accounting fiasco in 2001, could perhaps have been avoided if leaders were willing to listen and admit their mistakes, adds Jennifer Berdahl, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Take the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. There was concern before the launch about the O-rings used in the rocket boosters, because of a temperature drop. But NASA’s culture at the time wasn’t particularly open to discussion or questioning decisions made by its upper echelons. If its culture was less authoritarian, a disaster might have been averted.

Berdahl’s research shows there is still pressure on men to be perceived as masculine in the workplace. As a result, men often decide against doing things that are considered too feminine, such as taking parental leave.

But there are occasional situations where it does pay off to show more manly traits and be authoritarian, says Gerard Seijts, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business in London. For example, complacent workplaces could benefit from a leader who issues orders and won’t indulge in discussion. But, Seijts warns, leadership styles should be contextual and change as the situation warrants.