NPR Program that aired on 17 June 2016 Excerpted from the Transcript

Social norms determine much of your behavior… how you dress, talk, eat and even what you feel. In this episode co-hosts Spiegel and Rosin examined two grand experiments that attempted to shift these norms. One attempted to teach McDonald’s employees in Russia to smile… and the other is the subject of this handout!

Invisibilia’s question this episode was… can you take an emotional norm and transform it? Put another way, are these large, invisible, seemingly intractable things like the emotional temperament of an entire nation, changeable?

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This is the story of oil workers on the biggest, “baddest” rig in the Gulf of Mexico, who tried a social experiment to transform the entrenched macho culture of an oil rig in the Deep South. And spoiler alert! In the process of this shift, they massively improved the safety and productivity of the rig, as well as transformed the notion of what a Southern oil man is like.

Yes, this is the story of how macho men got in touch with their softer side… and how that made their oil rig a safer place to be.

First of all, the macho code of conduct on an oil rig says…

  • Never question authority
  • Swallow your emotions
  • Hide your mistakes
  • Never look weak by asking questions
  • If you don’t know, pretend you do
  • Show no vulnerability

But Rick Fox, the man in charge of this brand-new, really complex, totally unfamiliar and extremely dangerous rig named Ursa, hired a leadership coach named Claire who had created a program she called Learning As Leadership. And when Rick started talking drill schedules and oil production calendars and hardware, Claire cut him off. She said he wasn't dealing with the real problem, which was his fear.

She said, “You’re not talking real. What are the fears, anxieties, concerns you have about the challenges in front of you that you’re not allowing yourself to be open about? Can we just, like, cut the 'BS'? Because it’s scary what you’re doing. And it’s normal to be scared. And if you don’t just tell people you’re scared, you’re not going to create safety together.” This got Rick’s attention.

This little old French lady’s fierce grit came not just from her experience in the Human Potential Movement that was popular in the 1970’s, but also from having, in essence, cured herself of eye cancer by altering her mindset, which she did by facing her existential fears head on. Her personal success then inspired her to develop a leadership program that she took to straight business people to get them to strip off their corporate masks to look at what’s really driving them.

During her encounter sessions, her clients would often talk about events from their own childhoods, or examine dysfunctional dynamics in their families. As you can imagine, taking the oil rig’s macho code of conduct into their homes caused great personal stress and often created severe problems with their family members. Like with Rick and his family.

Which brings us back to Rick and his oil rig crew. For one-and-a-half years, for 30-40% of their work time, Claire lead sharing circles and a variety of emotional exercises designed to get the men to open up and share their personal lives, and even to cry in front of each other. She pushed them to learn to relax with and really trust each other.

Did any of the men enjoy this deep work? “Hell, no!” That’s a direct quote from one of the oil riggers. And there were plenty of outright dissenters to the bare-your-soul thing. Rick didn’t push. He knew he wasn’t going to convert everybody. But he took the men as far as he could. Still, is it really okay for a workplace to mess with the emotions of its workers like this? What does doing that get you, anyway?

Well, a pair of professors, one from Harvard Business School and one from Stanford, decided to study Rick’s experiment, to answer that very question. And they ultimately learned that the changes Rick and Claire instituted had resulted in an 84% decline in the company’s accident rate. And in that same period, the company’s level of productivity… in terms of (1) number of barrels, (2) efficiency and (3) reliability… exceeded the industry’s previous benchmark.

What the researchers found, during the months they documented the Ursa’s rig culture… watching the men talk, be vulnerable with each other… was that when the men became more open with each other, it wasn’t just feelings that were being passed back and forth, but also technical information that helped their platform to run smoothly and safely.

There’s actually a name for the kind of change Rick and Claire created… it’s called a learning culture. It’s okay to admit mistakes, to be open to learning, to say “I need help” and to ask for advice. In the old macho culture the men wasted a whole lot of energy trying to preserve a hyper-masculine image of themselves… which turns out, unsurprisingly, to impede safety! As well as productivity.

So here’s a disturbing (or hopeful) question… do you think that, in hindsight, BP might have benefited from having done this kind of work with all the people who were involved in Horizon before that tragic spill happened? Rick Fox sure thinks so!

But the new norms these men learned… talking about their feelings, crying at work, eagerly admitting mistakes… these are behaviors that people associate with women, right? Rick Fox doesn’t think so. And an author who has studied corporations for 30 years says the man/woman thing is just not the right way to look at it. He says it's not like the men are becoming more feminine. They're opening up and becoming more themselves.

One of Rick’s workers said that what Rick and Claire accomplished on Ursa was building a new kind of person. Maybe not a new physical man, but a new mental man… how he thinks about things and how he behaves.

And here’s another thing… almost all the men Invisibilia talked to said that the kind of man Rick turned them into, they liked better. Rick, too. He’d had a very broken relationship with his son before Claire’s intense work, but after… his son even became a psychiatrist and they are extremely close now!

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