One oil rig shows us how masculine culture can move to a brighter future

You can’t make mistakes on an offshore oil rig, you have to be tough and get things done. At least that’s the image we have and the image the workers themselves often have. A tough ultra-masculine work culture exists on oil rigs and in similar jobs where the men dominate and need to always appear strong. This culture leaves men unable to seek help and results in death and emotional trauma. It doesn’t need to be this way and seeing how one oil rig, Ursa, broke through the constraints of this culture is a great demonstration of how we can improve the lives of guys everywhere.

Oil rig culture encourages all the traditional masculine traits to be dialled up to 11. You have to be strong, aggressive and operate without error. These demands ask for an impossibility: you can’t ask for help and you can’t make mistakes but humans, by our nature, make mistakes and need help. It’s not all bad, oil rig culture and masculine culture more generally encourage assertiveness and decisiveness. These skills can make all the difference especially in high risk environments like oil rigs. The problem is that people are dying on oil rigs and more widely because of the constraints this culture enforces. If you can’t ask for help about how to work with a giant spinning piece of metal at some point something will go wrong. If you can’t ask for help little problems can pile on top of one another and spiral out of control until another man is dead by suicide.

Rick Fox had immersed himself in oil rig culture throughout his career with Shell as he explained in an interview with NPR. This came to a head when he became asset lead on a brand new oil rig: Ursa. When it was completed in 1999 it was the biggest in the world drilling for oil at a depth of 1.2km and costing US$1.4 billion. It was clear to Rick that something this big forced a re-examination of how oil rigs worked.

This is likely why he was willing to give Claire Nuer the time of day when her company, a leadership consultants, called him out of the blue. Claire was a French Holocaust survivor who believed that she could move clouds with her mind but Rick was willing to listen to what she had to say when she told Rick that the problem with oil rigs wasn’t a technical one but one of fear. Rick started attending seminars lead by Claire. Later he brought his son along and was able to cut through a tension that had existed between them. If the woman could improve what had been an almost broken relationship between him and his son Rick was willing to go to the next step.

While Ursa was still under construction Rick brought in its future staff to have sessions with Claire where they were encouraged to open up and talk about their personal lives with each other. Some of them told tragic stories: of growing up with abusive families, of children with terminal diseases and together they cried. This the opposite of the old rig culture. The workers were allowed and encouraged to be open with each other, admit mistakes and be vulnerable.

The result? Well Shell as a whole saw an 84% reduction in accidents and increased levels of productivity, efficiency and reliability. Though this seems less important than the unmeasurable benefits that a more emotionally open life can have for the guys.

This has great implications for men everywhere. Admitting mistakes and asking for help are life skills that men are actively taught to avoid as they attempt to reach an unobtainable masculine ideal. If rig workers can be more open then surely we all can. Unless it’s a one off, of course, some strange combination Rick’s leadership and Claire’s approach.

Fortunately it’s not the only example. A study of two oil rigs also in the Gulf of Mexico saw the same change. The company that run them encouraged openness, put a priority on safety and to counter the idea that the men couldn’t make mistakes they even celebrated the men whose mistakes cost the company a million dollars or more. The result was a similar transformation that took hold at Ursa.  The researchers argue that this is as a result of a reduction in stereotypical masculine traits which has the implication that these men have somehow become less manly.

So are we not making our men less manly and instead more feminine? Well NPR asked Rick and some other men who have worked on Ursa but they weren’t buying it. They don’t feel any less manly. NPR also spoke to author Art Kleiner with the same question in mind. His reply sums it up well saying: “It's not like the men are becoming more feminine. They're opening up and becoming more themselves.”

Men love and care, we seek to protect, we look to improve our situation, to support our friends and family. We are asked not to express these feelings not to show that we care because to do so is not masculine. The men on these oil rigs show us that masculinity can be redefined into something that is open: That shows vulnerability and emotional intelligence. The men on the rigs were able to build better relationships and communities and men everywhere can do the same but it takes support and encouragement. It will take a message that it’s ok to be vulnerable.

If we want the same change to happen across our society we need to promote the same message: It is ok to need help. We also need, and this will be more difficult, to lead by example: to be more open about our own fears, doubts and pains. It will take time but we could, following Ursa’s example, have a better life for everyone.

Photo by Peretz Partensky originally found on Flickr used under creative commons licence. It depicts an oil rig that is not Ursa.