‘Masculinity Contest Culture’ is Killing Innovation at Work

It turns out we don’t do our best work in hypercompetitive, ‘Game of Thrones’–style environments

SSince the #MeToo movement ignited a national outcry about the rampant sexual harassment and abuse in industries from film and television to politics, workplaces have been much more attuned to the way “traditional” (some might say “toxic”) socialized masculinity can contribute to gender inequality, bias, and sexual misconduct.

But even progressive companies can struggle with “masculinity contest cultures,” according to a paper published in the Harvard Business Review last year. These cultures may include harassment and abuse, but the more “benign” elements will also sound familiar to many office workers:

... taking on and bragging about heavy workloads or long hours, cutting corners to out-earn others, and taking unreasonable risks either physically (in blue-collar jobs) or in decision-making (e.g., rogue traders in finance). The competition breeds unspoken anxiety (because admitting anxiety is seen as weak) and defensiveness (e.g., blaming subordinates for any failure), undermining cooperation, psychological safety, trust in co-workers, and the ability to admit uncertainty or mistakes.

These contests don’t just make life miserable for people of all genders. They also suppress innovation, and are particularly common in high-risk, male-dominated industries such as law enforcement, tech, and finance.

In these “hyper-competitive, Game of Thrones-style environments,” the Stanford researcher and co-author of the paper Marianne Cooper says, “physicality is prized” — including shows of stamina, like working day and night ahead of a product launch. Bullying is normalized. Family life and health are devalued. Workers try to win at all costs, even if it means sabotaging co-workers, so teamwork and collaboration are difficult.

“Innovation and creativity is really born out of psychological safety and teams. When people have toxic leaders, or are being bullied, that really stymies that whole process.”

“The other identifying feature,” Cooper told me when I interviewed her last year, “is very low trust, and not feeling safe at all.”

This lack of “psychological safety” — the sense that employees can comfortably take risks — is a big problem for workers in the knowledge economy, which runs on new ideas. “Innovation and creativity is really born out of psychological safety and teams,” Cooper says. “When people have toxic leaders, or are being bullied, that really stymies that whole process.”

Indeed, a growing body of research has found that psychological safety is necessary for forming trust, taking appropriate risks, staying motivated and curious, and maintaining resilience. In one much-cited study, Google examined more than 250 attributes of around 180 teams, and found that psychological safety was “far and away” the most important component of the highest-performing groups.

Masculinity contest cultures are defined by the absence of this sense of safety. For the study highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, Cooper and her co-authors surveyed thousands of workers in North America about their personal outcomes at work and the culture of their companies, including whether “masculine qualities” were highly prized in their workplaces. From the responses, the researchers identified four “masculine norms” linked to higher organizational dysfunction: 1) showing no weakness/vulnerability, 2) strength/stamina, 3) work above all else, and 4) “dog eat dog” environments, where the more “masculine” are “winners,” the less masculine are “losers,” and all involved report low levels of trust.

It’s no surprise that offices like this are plagued by high turnover and burnout. But they remain common, because they echo the broader social construct of masculinity: the demand for men to “man up” and “prove” that they are “real” through displays of dominance, toughness, and aggression.

This endless task of proving one’s masculinity, the shame of “failing” to do so, and the related suppression of emotions, have been linked to increased violence, including self-inflicted violence, among men. It also comes with other dangers: “If you needed to be tough to show people that you could dominate them, what would you do?” Cooper asks. “You might yell at people in meetings and publicly humiliate them. You might try to sabotage your colleague. Or you might sexually harass women, or other men, to show them who’s boss.”

Leaders can have a profound effect on organizational culture by encouraging dissenters to speak up, and not punishing or ostracizing them for doing so.

Cooper also told me that while contest-culture workplaces often require everyone (including women) to behave according to “masculine norms,” not everyone is treated the same for buying in. “If we’re all in a contest, and the key weapons of the contest are anger or self-promotion,” Cooper says, “women can’t really just be angry and self-promote. They’re going to get pushback. Same for men of color.” In these contest cultures, women of all races and men of color are set up to lose no matter what they do.

Recognizing this pattern as a pervasive cultural problem, and not just the work of a “few bad apples,” is the only way to change it, Cooper and her co-authors write. They suggest that managers and higher-ups focus on re-aligning meetings and other workplace processes with the organizational mission, rather than its prevailing norms. As an example, they cite an energy company that implemented new safety practices on an oil rig: Leadership convinced employees that tightening up safety standards was in-line with both the core values and the business needs of the company. They encouraged workers to voice concerns about any dangerous procedures, to take requisite breaks, and to watch out for each other. “The need to prove manhood proved incompatible with the new mission-based rules,” Cooper and her co-authors write. “Not only were accidents and injuries reduced, but so was bullying, harassment, burnout, and stress.”

Even the winners in masculinity contest culture don’t really win. Research shows that very few people are actually comfortable in these environments, no matter how complicit they might be. College campuses across the country have recognized that bystander training is a way to combat sexual harassment and abuse, and Cooper says masculinity contest cultures can be similarly disrupted by bystander intervention.

“Most people think that the people they work with endorse these behaviors more than they do,” she told me. When “no one speaks out against bad behavior, it’s because they think everybody else endorses it.”

Leaders can have a profound effect on organizational culture by encouraging dissenters to speak up, and not punishing or ostracizing them for doing so. They can also model the collaboration and care necessary to create psychological safety — which powers creative, innovative, healthy teams.

Alternately, they can keep the focus on dominance and masculinity maintenance, and suffer the inevitable consequences.

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.

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