During the horrific school shooting last month in Parkland, Florida, one of the sheriff’s deputies on the scene did not enter the building to confront the attacker. The internet, Parkland officials, and politicians reacted swiftly. The deputy was criticized by his boss for his supposed inaction and was called a “coward” by the president of the United States.
The use of this specific word was not accidental. More than just failing to act as a first responder, “coward” implies a much greater transgression: failing to act as a man. As Alex Kingsbury writes in the Boston Globe, it plays into a timeless American narrative: “the idea that real men dispatch bad men with a pull of the trigger.” Because the bonafide requirements of first responders’ jobs closely align with traditional ideals of heroic manhood (“strong,” “brave,” “risk-taking”)—ideals deeply rooted in culture and psychology—men in first responder roles face additional pressure to “act like men” at work. This makes their perceived failure to do so all the more noteworthy and susceptible to critique by the public and their colleagues.
Masculinity, we should note, has many manifestations in organizations. One of us (Olivia) has investigated a side of masculine organizational culture known for what psychologists call “companionate love.” It involves fondness, affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness—or, as first responders would say, “camaraderie” or “brotherly love.” Shaming the deputy for failing to act heroically by calling him a coward, however, perpetuates a darker side of masculine culture associated with avoiding the appearance of vulnerability and gaining and maintaining dominance over others. By making people feel diminished, worthless, and exposed, shaming like this often motivates defensive responses, as psychologist June Tangney and her collaborators have found in their study of criminal recidivism. Shame in the context of this second type of masculine organizational cultures, we are coming to learn, can lead to a variety of negative individual and organizational outcomes.
For the past two and half years, a working group of gender scholars (including us) led by Jennifer Berdahl, Joan Williams, Peter Glick, and Marianne Cooper have been working to understand what happens in organizational cultures that conflate masculinity with performance, or what the working group refers to as “masculinity contest cultures.” To maintain status, such cultures require workers (both men and women) to “prove” their masculinity by engaging in behaviors we categorize into four groups: “dog-eat-dog,” “strength and stamina,” “put work first,” and “show no weakness.” These behaviors tend to be common in organizations characterized by toughness and competitiveness, like first-responder organizations, but even consultants and executives who spend most of their time behind a computer can valorize similar ideals, as sociologists Erin Reid and Mary Blair-Loy find in forthcoming research.
Our initial analysis indicates that masculinity contest cultures are associated with numerous harmful workplace outcomes such as bullying, increased sexual harassment, burnout, and decreased employee well-being. These outcomes are exacerbated when threats to masculinity are made public.
In a series of studies, research by Jennifer Bosson, Joe Vandello, and colleagues shows that when men experience public threats to their masculinity, they have increased anxiety and are particularly likely to lash out with behaviors such as increased aggression and financial risk taking. This suggests that threats to masculinity that are widely publicized via social media or other channels—such as the reaction we observed in the Parkland case—can magnify the feeling of impending threat and scrutiny. In a vicious cycle, these negative behaviors create an environment characterized by fear and hostility, preventing people from doing their best work.
In the case of first responders who frequently need to process traumatic events, this can be particularly detrimental. Masculinity contest cultures may discourage emergency responders from confiding in others or seeking health services, a recommended best practice from employees who frequently experience trauma. A recent study by Ashleigh Rosette, Jennifer Mueller, and David Lebel found that male leaders were penalized and rated as less competent when seeking help. Psychologist James Mahalik and collaborators have also written extensively on the link between masculine norms and reduced help-seeking behaviors, suggesting that environments characterized by masculinity contests make it difficult for employees to seek the social support and health care they need.
All of this said, first responders must make quick decisions in life-or-death situations. Protecting the public is central to their jobs. When something goes terribly wrong, it’s important to investigate what happened and why. Those involved must deal with these situations in a professional manner while simultaneously negotiating the painful emotions that go along with them. None of this is easy. But it can be done.
How? In a now-classic study of offshore oil workers, for example, Robin Ely and Debra Meyerson examined one approach. The company at the center of their research implemented an organizational culture change initiative that decoupled stereotypically masculine traits prominent in the organization (like reckless bravado, emotionlessness, and never admitting failure) in favor of competencies aligned with better performance (like willingness to admit failure, relying on and learning from others, and expressing vulnerability and concern). This move not only drastically improved productivity and safety; it also helped men realize they could “behave in ways that conventional masculine norms would have precluded.”
Another antidote to the pernicious effects of masculinity contest cultures is to prioritize the aforementioned brighter side of masculinity: companionate love. Rather than publicly shaming an emergency responder, as we saw this past month, this kind of masculine culture encourages perspective-taking and caring.
A recent longitudinal, multi-method research study of 40 metropolitan fire stations conducted by one of us (O’Neill) shows just how influential—and positive—emotions can be to an organization. In the study, firefighting crews with a work culture defined by companionate love and what we found to be a prototypical masculine emotion—joviality, or being in good humor—were much less likely to engage in unnecessary risk-taking, both in their own lives and at work. The consequences of joviality for performance were striking: crews higher in joviality showed faster coordination time during emergency calls and were less likely to be in auto accidents or have property damage on the job. We also discovered the importance of a supportive family life, which had its strongest impact on firefighter physical health—particularly in combination with the warmth and supportiveness of the crew culture.
To be clear: traits associated with masculinity—heroism included—in and of themselves, are not the problem. The problem is when masculine traits like heroism and emotional stoicism are taken to the extreme, leaving no room for vulnerability or mistakes. Under these circumstances, situations unfold that can hurt men, the organizations for which they work, and potentially the people they seek to protect. Scolding emergency responders for violating masculine ideals is not helping anybody—and, in fact, may do substantially more harm in the long-run.
Source: Harward Business