25 September 2023

Men at work: How boys being boys can undermine organisations

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Jennifer L. Berdahl, Peter Glick and Marianne Cooper* say a culture of masculinity contest which endorses winner-take-all competition also produces organisational dysfunction.

From Uber to Nike to CBS, recent exposés have revealed seemingly dysfunctional workplaces rife with misconduct, bullying and sexual harassment.

Why do organisations get caught up in illegal behaviour, harassment and toxic leadership?

Our research identifies an underlying cause: what we call a “masculinity contest culture.”

This kind of culture endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina and ruthlessness.

It produces organisational dysfunction, as employees become hyper competitive to win.

Masculinity contest cultures

We surveyed thousands of workers in the US and Canada.

Respondents rated whether various masculine qualities were highly prized in their workplace; they also reported on other organisational characteristics and their personal outcomes.

Four masculine norms, which together define masculinity contest culture, emerged as highly correlated with each other and with organisational dysfunction:

  • “Show no weakness”: A workplace that demands swaggering confidence, never admitting doubt or mistakes, and suppressing any tender or vulnerable emotions.
  • “Strength and stamina”: A workplace that prizes strong or athletic people (even in white-collar work) or those who show off their endurance (e.g., by working extreme hours).
  • “Put work first”: A workplace where nothing outside the organisation (e.g., family) can interfere with work, where taking a break or a leave represents a lack of commitment.
  • “Dog eat dog”: A workplace filled with ruthless competition, where “winners” (the most masculine) focus on defeating “losers” (the less masculine), and no one is trusted.

These norms take root in organisations because behaving in accordance with them is what makes someone a “man.”

As phrases like “man up” illustrate, being a man is something men must prove — not just once, but repeatedly.

And it doesn’t take much to make men feel like “less of a man.”

Men react defensively when they even just think about job loss, or receive feedback suggesting they have a “feminine” personality.

What all of this means is that the need to repeatedly prove manhood can lead men to behave aggressively, take unwarranted risks, work extreme hours, engage in cut-throat competition and sexually harass women (or other men).

This shifts the focus from accomplishing the organisation’s mission to proving one’s masculinity.

The result: endless “mine’s bigger than yours” contests, such as taking on and bragging about heavy workloads or long hours, cutting corners to out-earn others, and taking unreasonable risks either physically or in decision-making.

Masculinity contests are most prevalent — and vicious — in male-dominated occupations where extreme and precarious resources are at stake (fame, power, wealth, safety).

Where does this leave women?

Like everyone else, women must try to play the game to survive, and the few who succeed may do so by behaving just as badly as the men vying to win.

But the game is rigged against women and minorities: they must work harder to prove themselves while facing backlash for displaying dominant behaviours like anger and self-promotion.

The business case against masculinity contests

Organisations rely on cooperative teamwork to succeed.

But masculinity contests lead people to focus on burnishing their personal image and status at the expense of others, even their organisations.

Organisations that score high on masculinity contest culture tend to have toxic leaders who abuse and bully others to protect their own egos; low psychological safety such that employees do not feel accepted or respected, feeling unsafe to express themselves; low work/family support among leaders, discouraging work–life balance; sexual harassment, racial harassment, social humiliation and physical intimidation; higher rates of burnout and turnover; and higher rates of illness and depression.

These problems create both direct costs (through turnover and harassment lawsuits) and indirect costs (through decreased innovation due to low psychological safety).

Put simply, masculinity contest cultures are toxic to organisations and the men and women within them.

Changing masculinity contest cultures

Despite being toxic, masculinity contest cultures persist for two reasons: 1) the association between toxic masculinity and success is so strong that people feel compelled to keep playing the game; and (2) questioning the masculinity contest marks one as a “loser,” which disincentivises people from pushing back.

Real change requires shutting down this game.

To accomplish this, organisations need to perform deeper, more committed work to examine and diagnose their cultures.

These efforts must be led by those who have the power to spark serious reform.

It is crucial to generate awareness of the masculinity contest and its role in creating organisational problems.

For instance, people tend to attribute sexual harassment to a “few bad apples,” ignoring how an organisation’s culture unleashed, allowed, and may have even rewarded the misconduct.

When organisations do not tolerate bullying and harassment, the bad apples are kept in check and good apples do not go bad.

Two specific actions are a good place to start:

Establish a stronger focus on the organisation’s mission.

Current trainings backfire, in part, because they focus on compliance and “what not to do”.

Effective interventions require authentic and meaningful connections to core organisational values and goals.

Organisations can leverage other core goals to motivate reform.

For example, research demonstrates a common characteristic among innovative teams: psychological safety.

Team members know that they can raise questions or voice doubts without eliciting ridicule or rejection.

An initiative to foster innovation via greater psychological safety would naturally dampen the masculinity contest.

As a by-product, the work environment should become more hospitable and inclusive toward women and minorities.

People fail to question masculinity contest norms lest they be tagged as a whiny, soft loser.

As a result, everyone goes along to get along, publicly reinforcing norms they privately hate.

Because people publicly uphold the norms, it appears as though everyone endorses them.

Research has shown that people in masculinity contest cultures think their co-workers embrace these norms when in fact they do not, breeding pervasive but silent dissatisfaction.

Leaders can remedy this misperception by publicly rejecting masculinity contest norms and empowering others to voice their previously secret dissent.

But they also need to walk the talk by changing reward systems, modelling new behaviour, and punishing the misconduct previously overlooked or rewarded.

When masculinity contest cultures become “the way business gets done,” both organisations and the people within them suffer.

* Jennifer L. Berdahl is Professor of Leadership: Gender and Diversity at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

Peter Glick is the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor at Lawrence University and a Senior Scientist with the Neuroleadership Institute.

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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