Toxic Masculinity? The Saga of the Oil Platform Ursa

From the air, on a late spring day — North Fork Clearwater – photo by son Charles Conor Pezeshki. The bird is likely a cliff swallow

I had a request from a Twitter friend, Dr. Cameron Sepah, (@DrSepah) an executive coach, and Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF, for perspectives on the term toxic masculinity – a term coined in the academy, but seeing widespread usage in today’s editorial milieu.

Dr. Sepah is now leading a consumer health start-up, Maximus, with the intent of providing positive reframing of masculine mental models, with content, community and clinical support, along the line of what he’s named Tonic Masculinity.

In the piece below (tentatively Chapter 3 of the book I am writing) within the empathy framework that I have written about, I show that actually the term “toxic masculinity” is misleading, but also a product of low empathy perspectives. With a more evolved perspective, where we integrate social structure, trauma, and personal development, we can see paths out of negative behaviors.

With that introduction, below, I’ve pasted the piece.


Chapter 3 — The Power of Empathy On the Oil Platform Ursa

No man is an island. 

 John Donne

Dateline June 17, 2016

In a story by Hanna Rosin, for the National Public Radio show Invisibilia, Rosin looks back at a case study on Shell Oil Company’s initial foray into deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, on the state-of-the-art platform Ursa. Developed in 1997, to the tune of $1.45B, Ursa was a breakthrough effort in petroleum exploration.  Designed to go much deeper, and pump more oil than any offshore platform to date – Ursa was designed to drill in over 3000’ deep water – the complexity, energetics and systemic integration massively exceeded any effort to date.  

Manning any offshore drilling platform was, and is still hazardous duty.  Rosin tells a story of one of the co-workers on a crew pre-Ursa who was picked up by a loose wrench tensioned by a large pipe.  He was picked up and spun about 80 times before he stopped, smacking his head on a post that was tragically adjacent.  The man’s head was turned into a bloody pulp.  His co-workers watched this happen, with all the trauma that would be entailed.  Yet they only gave themselves 15 minutes to mourn before going back to work.  

“In about three seconds, it spun him around about 80 times,” Chreene says. A few feet from the man was a post, and “his head was hitting that post like a rotten tomato.”

They got 15 minutes to mourn after watching their friend and colleague die, but that was it. “I mean, that hole cost a lot of money,” he says. “We got to go to work.”

And scaling up the operation, with more people, and even greater system energetics, was likely to increase the safety risk even more.  The C-suite at Shell knew that things had to change in the work culture of offshore oil exploration to have any hope of operating such a large platform safely.  But they had no immediate answers.

Then an unusual event happened.  Shell was contacted by a leadership development firm, headed up by a Holocaust survivor, Claire Nuer.  Nuer was a former Werner Erhard EST participant and devotee, and insisted that what really needed to change was that the men needed to get in touch with their feelings.  She insisted that the code of conduct on the rig was one of hidden emotions, and that would not allow them to move forward as a unified team until the necessary work was done in daylighting the stresses the men encountered together.

The result of Nuer’s facilitation was an upward trajectory of bringing the oil platform group into a successful, high functioning team.  Adoption of similar team-building exercises across Shell led to the accident rate dropping an incredible 84% company-wide, and allowed productivity on all the company rigs to soar.  

The success attracted academic attention as well. Dr. Robin Ely of Harvard University, and Dr. Debra Meyerson of Stanford concluded that having the men get in touch with their feelings was key to peak performance.  From their Harvard Business Review paper:

What can managers in white-collar firms learn from roughnecks and roustabouts on an offshore oil rig? That extinguishing macho behavior is vital to achieving top performance. That’s a key finding from our study of life on two oil platforms, during which we spent several weeks over the course of 19 months living, eating, and working alongside crews offshore.”

“Their altered stance revealed two things: First, that much of their macho behavior was not only unnecessary but actually got in the way of doing their jobs; and second, that their notions about what constituted strong leadership needed to change. They discovered that the people who used to rise to the top—the “biggest, baddest roughnecks,” as one worker described them—weren’t necessarily the best at improving safety and effectiveness. Rather, the ones who excelled were mission-driven guys who cared about their fellow workers, were good listeners, and were willing to learn.

Both Ely’s and Meyerson’s paper, as well as Rosin’s piece, focuses on the ostensible culture of macho behavior, and how what Ely calls ‘toxic masculinity’ created a corrosive work environment that had led to the safety problems in the first place.  

But there are signs of other insights.  Rosin, at the end of her story, noted that information flowed far more freely and accurately across the oil rig, and though there was lots of commentary about gender roles, and ‘girly’ behavior in the analysis, she did notice the difference.

All well and good – sort of.  But how do we take the analysis from both the academic side, and the radio reportage and as a cutting-edge, performance-based leader, move forward?  Ely has this comment from her paper:

If men in the hypermasculine environment of oil rigs can let go of the macho ideal and improve their performance, then men in corporate America might be able to do likewise. Numerous studies have examined the costs of macho displays in contexts ranging from aeronautics to manufacturing to high tech to the law. They show that men’s attempts to prove their masculinity interfere with the training of recruits, compromise decision quality, marginalize women workers, lead to civil- and human-rights violations, and alienate men from their health, feelings, and relationships with others. The price of men’s striving to demonstrate their masculinity is high, and both individuals and organizations pay it.

But perhaps the most interesting comment, reported by Rosin, came from one of the oil rig roughnecks themselves.  

“Horn says that after his stepmother’s funeral, his son told him, ” ‘It could be a total stranger. I’d still cry for them. I have empathy for those I don’t even know.’ So where did he learn that? You know, instead of all this tough-guy stuff that you’re raised with in the South. Did he learn that from me? I don’t know.”

Let’s transplant ourselves for a minute, and put on our manager hat.  How can we understand this situation from a place in the modern office, or on a software development team?  Should we arrange a training with Claire Nuer’s firm, and watch as it terminates with every man on the team giving each other foot rubs? What happens if we take people in non- life-threatening work environments and attempt to get them to open up to each other, disgorging themselves of whatever ostensible toxic masculinity they have?  What is toxic masculinity anyway, and is it a genetic predisposition?  Are men fundamentally, biologically wired to behave in the way prior to training by a French Holocaust survivor?  Should we just let women run the show?

There is another way. If we can move past the labels and stereotypes (understanding exactly why Rosin and the researchers perceive this situation this way will have to wait until Chapter 5,) we can understand the oil rig workers and their transformation from how their system moved information before the training, to the new instantiation afterwards.   One of the meta- road maps developed in this book regards how observer’s perspectives influence outcomes and plans of action. It’s not that the insight from both Rosin, and the researching professors, is completely invalid.  But if we understand both Rosin’s, Ely’s and Meyerson’s perspective, we can understand the narrative they’re constructing, and what tools they have to do this with.  No one in this picture is without a perspective that influences the construction of the road map.  

What does a different, empathy-based information flow version of how Shell drilled deeper, with higher productivity, as part of their pioneering efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, look like? 

In the past, oil platforms were staffed in a low empathy, authority-driven fashion, with a crew boss who gave the orders, and underlings expected to follow the orders.  Talking back was not allowed, and if you were told to do something, you had better do it or you’d be fired.

Work on the rigs was obviously dangerous, and often unsafe.  Terrifying accidents happened with astounding regularity, to the point where in the minds of many of the workers, it wasn’t whether an injury-causing accident might happen to them.  It was only a matter of time.  As a result of the chronic hypervigilance, many of the underlings, as well as the crew bosses themselves, were trauma survivors suffering from a variety of trauma-related conditions, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  

The authoritarian power structures that organized work on the rigs tapped into many of the edicts of the surrounding culture of Southern males – exploited them, actually – and seemed to work well enough, considering that the value of people’s lives were relatively low, and how disconnected the communities were.  Death on the platforms was an accepted risk by both women and men in those communities, and both genders had adaptive cultural behaviors that normalized that risk.  When on the job, the fear on those platforms was profound, to the point that the men had developed a low/no empathy survival culture to deal with the trauma they and their friends experience on a regular basis.  Those that didn’t run away, or fight against those working conditions were ones that the system naturally selected for.  That left behavioral ‘freezing’ as the only operative mode persistent for men working on the rigs, which were literal islands off the coast, only joined by helicopter transport.  

Pay, however, was high, for the educational level the men possessed, and the status and security of the work offset the risks, however tenuously, among the ones who survived the working conditions. Besides that, when people were regularly injured, the short react and response timescales evolved by trauma inside people’s heads were short.  There was no point in thinking much about tomorrow when a.) you had minimal control over what work you were assigned, or b.) the reality that thinking about tomorrow might distract you from the now, and that level of distraction would get you killed.  No one was really watching out for you but yourself.

Into this mess walked in someone who could relate – a Holocaust survivor, Claire Nuer.  Possessing a powerful personality, with experiences in trauma that few could match,  Nuer had also followed an authority-based, emotionally dysregulated path to some level of healing – Werner Erhard’s EST training. EST involved extensive harangues directed in a positive direction regarding confronting ones’ lack of developed relationship with self.  The pressures from the training forced the frozen survivors, those whom the natural circumstances of the situation had selected, through extreme emotional pressure, to connect first with their own thoughts and emotions. 

Nuer, through her own power and authority, also created a safe space for the men manning Ursa, to open up to their co-workers about the experiences on the rig, and also facilitated the development of coherent, shared meaning of the experience. The techniques Nuer used were crude, and did not work with all participants.  One of the managers suffered an emotional collapse and had to be hospitalized.  But by starting the process through first self-empathy, and secondly, emotional empathy with fellow co-workers in the same in-group, much good was done.  Just as in those that had managed to survive the Holocaust, undoubtedly, Nuer knew that her methods would work.  But she also expected casualties.

The men evolved empathetically through the process.  Along the way of the various exercises, they learned how each would react and process the various experiences they had seen.  Up close and personal, they learned how to read each other’s body and facial cues, to maximize their ability to handle shared risk.  All had a survival stake in the game.  By developing larger, shared narratives of their experience, they also learned that sharing the outcome of everyone finishing work alive united them.  Emotional empathy – the ability to read and share emotions triggered by the stressful work environment they all participated in– evolved even further with repetition, and led to rational, place-taking empathy emerging – knowing what each other would do in a given stress-saturated environment.  

The difficult work that Nuer led, and the men completed, knit together their social network, making them appreciate not just as isolated actors in a perilous world, but humans bound together in a dangerous environment.  Because information exchange and reach mattered, they started deeply realizing that they were all sensors for different aspects of all situations on the larger platform. As they practiced both self- and other-knowing and understanding, their trust in their new information exchange capacity rapidly increased as well.  Now, instead of each person locked down and frozen on their small, hypervigilant piece of turf, both spatial and temporal, they had full situation awareness of any variation in performance in the much larger arena of the Ursa platform.  

As the crew boss learned of the advantages of having a distributed, duplex communication network model for his crew with regards to platform performance, instead of a fragmented authoritarian power structure, he supported the changes in work practice.  The newer, more egalitarian social structure started paying off with rapidly falling accident rates, and soaring productivity, making it easier to evolve his perspective on appropriate management culture away from the hidebound model he had been raised.  Plus, being deeply connected with the men, they became an extension of his own self.  Because of that connection, he actually cared about what happened to them.

These benefits were felt off-rig by all the men as well.  Once unfrozen out of their trauma-dissociated state, they were able to regain their long-term thinking abilities and rational faculties, and necessarily started thinking about the future.  The emotional regulation and empathy-development skills learned in training to recognize gestures and unspoken needs became transferred to the world outside the rig, almost automatically, reframing the men’s perspectives with regards to their wives, children and larger community.  When you are connected, you care.  

And instead of a culture dictated by embodied harsh, low empathy authority-driven power structures that had dominated the men’s lives, with toxic In-Group codes based on the more regressive aspects of Southern culture, they began to pay attention to the changing world around them.  They became a community.  And with that larger, communitarian perspective gained on their work crew on the rig, other parts of their perspective were also modified to include a larger responsibility to others inside their social community.  

New social development tools were also mastered.  The process of reflection and connection that Nuer had introduced became institutionalized in the work practice on the rig.  Much more empowered, and valuable to their own selves, the men could now look out into a world where others’ lives had value, as well as their own.  And through the process of reflection, they could also learn to look backward at how they had been raised, and change themselves for a brighter future for themselves and their children.

For most readers of the management literature, the above description of the situation and the change dynamics on the oil platform Ursa will seem different and unfamiliar, even if the larger narrative resonates deeply.  After all, allegations of toxic masculinity have been made by a noteworthy radio journalist, as well as a professor in the Harvard Business School.  Toxic masculinity is a belief framework that many in academia are invested in.  

But even on the surface, it faces what we call (and will discuss later) a validity challenge.  Masculinity fundamentally implies behavior isolated to men, and toxic masculinity some moral value judgment about men’s behavior.  Yet one would have a very difficult time keeping a straight face and denying that women of all cultures have an inherent ability, just like men, to be cruel and ruthless.  There is the famous lyric from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, The Young British Soldier.

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains 

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Go, go, go like a soldier,

Go, go, go like a soldier,

Go, go, go like a soldier,

So-oldier of the Queen!

Talking about toxic masculinity passes what we’ll call the reliability challenge.  It’s a mental model, a map, that many people will identify with, and be able to describe.  But it’s fundamentally a status assertion that doesn’t lead very far – maybe to another set of trainings on diversity.  If it fixes your productivity challenges, it’s only because the diversity trainer was also cogent enough to work on the other failings of empathy.  And fundamentally invalid mental models will only get you so far.  As Mark Twain so insightfully said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

By understanding the deeper psycho-social dynamics of the situation on the oil platform, instead of the status-based mental model of toxic masculinity, the empathetic manager can see paths forward for both the employees AND the crew boss.  Trauma and a lack of social evolution had limited uniting everyone in shared performance goals. By appreciating how sharing information in a high-risk, high-energetic environment could make a difference, management could structure physical means, as well as important social ones in the org chart, so that the org chart wasn’t working cross-purposes with the larger goals of both drilling for oil, as well as having everyone finish their shift safely. 

Empathy matters.  The men developed empathy for each other, and their evolution spread beyond the boundaries of the small group of individuals in the work crew.  The quote,

 ‘It could be a total stranger. I’d still cry for them. I have empathy for those I don’t even know.’

Is particularly insightful.  Once developed to a certain degree, empathy creates emergent behavior in the people possessing it, in ways that a priori may have been unpredictable.  

But there’s more going on here than meets the eye.  The narratives above offer evidence how all the men changed and evolved on a personal level.  But other things changed as well.  Social structures and communication patterns altered the fundamental way the social network operated on the oil rig, from a pattern of fragmentation to richer mode of shared awareness and knowing.  

That’s a huge change in perspective on the events in the Gulf.  To understand that change, as well as understanding that the core change had to start with empathetic development, we’re going to need some more theory.

8 thoughts on “Toxic Masculinity? The Saga of the Oil Platform Ursa

  1. I’ve never worked in that kind of environment. I’ve avoided stressful work and stress in general. From decades of severe depression, regular life was traumatizing enough without any need to add in some extra trauma. Just reading your description of those oil rig work conditions is depressing. Besides, I’ve always been more Midwestern in my personality and identity. Despite having spent many years in the Deep South, the honor culture of aggression, violence, and machismo never appealed to me. I clung to my earlier Midwestern upbringing of moderate and reserved aloofness. To be masculine in a rural farm state like Iowa is much more low-key.

    In general, I’m not attracted to stereotypically masculine environments. I’m not much for competition. I did play team sports, soccer to be specific, from childhood through high school. But even then, I never could feel motivated to care much if my team won or not. I seem to lack some necessary component of stereotypical masculinity. I suppose my father does as well. He had to learn to play the role to a greater extent than I ever did, though. He went into the military and, in becoming an officer, had to go through the motions of alpha male symbolic behavior. Then he got into factory management by way of an engineering degree.

    My father is a high empathy type and raised me that way, such as the high empathy Unity Church our family went to. The part of being a factory manager he enjoyed was using his intellect and accomplishing goals. He is a personable guy who enjoyed seeing everything working on the factory floor, but he didn’t like having to reprimand and fire workers. He finally hit a breaking point when he worked in a factory that had a Social Darwinian culture. It was extremely aggressive and competitive. The CEO was the son of the owners and his preferred method of management was to have managers ruthlessly fight each other to see who won. He had to deal with a manager working under him trying to sabotage him by spreading lies.

    The stress of it led him to have anxiety attacks. That led to a mid-life crisis. He realized that if he stayed in that job he would be severely unhappy and probably would die young from a heart attack. For the sake of survival, he left that line of work and went back to work to become a professor, a job he found a much better fit for his personality. I’m in many ways more emotionally sensitive than my father. My empathy is overly developed, although in ways not always optimal. It’s easy for me to pick up on what is going on around me and in the larger world. I can’t shut down my emotional response. It doesn’t feel like there is much role for empathy in most of our society. My hyper-sensitivity has felt more like a handicap than an advantage.

    It’s interesting that I ended up working a government job, although it is specifically in public service. The department I work has to do with parking and transportation. In some ways like all government, it is bureaucratic. But it’s local government in a small city which is a different situation. I actually find it to be more empathy-promoting than any private sector job I ever had. The city government is constantly training us about how to relate well to workers and customers, respecting and dealing with diversity, etc. Government, oddly, can be obsessive about empathy. One of my bosses has been there longer than I have. He worked up from an entry level position in the department. He is very friendly and caring guy. He has empathy for the workers and takes public service seriously.

    Even though my department makes profit for the city government, it is not particularly profit-motivated and so profit is low on the list of priorities. Making sure citizen-customers are happy is our real purpose. I’ve come to appreciate the value of public service. In some ways, my job as a parking ramp cashier is already obsolete. Yet I serve a purpose in being a human face representing local government and the public services it provides. In our often Social Darwinian capitalist society, not many workers are fortunate enough to be in a work environment where empathy is promoted and rewarded or maybe even tolerated. I’m not sure I see much incentives for most workplaces to shift toward a more empathy orientation, although one would hope that could happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Healthy view of self+ ability to transcend the “self” into realizing everybody is the same would create a healthy empathetic dynamic.
    In a ruthless capitalist culture, we move to become cogs in a machine i.e. “isolated” from our work, and overtime that crushes our spirits and builds an unhealthy image of ourselves in our own heads.
    Oil rig guys are empathetic because they are allowed to see the fruits of their labor right in front of them, thus work would actualize them into becoming their true full selves, humans who are able to project their healthy perception of self onto others.

    Unrelated question: do you believe the super wealthy are “addicted” to money and the prestige it buys similar to other drugs, that is do they stop assigning themselves value OUTSIDE of their money, and are afraid that loss of money would inherently decrease their human worth? Especially within their social circles.
    And what if you were born into wealth, how do we expect these children to develop healthy empathy for the poor and middle class? To me its sad that some people are locked in fear within their own minds trying to avoid the “dirty” lower person, and their perception is that a bunch of hundred dollar bills is the only way to keep oneself from becoming one of the depraved masses.

    Idealistically speaking, people from all economic backgrounds should visit each others houses and listen to one another’s stories and life experiences, perhaps then we would recognize that life is only worth living when our neighbor is well fed and safe.


    1. This comment go me thinking some more. Inequality is a great topic related to empathy. Touching on this are books like Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s Inner Level and Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. But from another angle, I was also thinking of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground.

      I bought those last two books for my father. Both authors share the same demographics and background as my father: white men, born in the early 1940s, Midwestern raised, hometowns are small factory towns surrounded by farmland, etc. Besides the birth period, that sort of describes me as well. The place of my birth and earliest influential years was in a small factory town in the Midwest. By the way, besides being a small college town, the place I now live and work in originally also was a small factory town. All of these towns weren’t only small factory towns but at one time thriving, prosperous, and bustling communities.

      In my initial comment above, I noted that the local government here is very empathy-driven. Well, besides being a small town, it’s a healthy community and is located in a state with a stable farm economy. A large number of people working in government here were born and raised in the community or in nearby communities. The one guy who worked his way up in the department comes from family that has been farming on land just outside of town since the 1800s. Based on a history of farming communities, Iowa still has a fair amount of culture of trust.

      That appears to have been true of Murray’s birthplace, likewise in Iowa, and where Putnam grew up, which is in Ohio like my birthplace. Those two books are really great, particularly paired as the come from different ideological positions. The authors surprisingly make similar points about a culture of trust, although I don’t recall if either specifically labels it as such. They talk about the commonality of life experience in these places, across socioeconomic classes. There weren’t separate rich and poor neighborhoods, rich and poor schools, rich and poor churches, etc. The management lived on the same street as the workers, the women socialized together, and the kids played together.

      This point is emphasized in my own experience. My birthplace is Bellefontaine, Ohio. It used be a major center of commerce as multiple railroad lines stopped there. It wasn’t quite as central in my childhood but still was a really nice factory town. My father was a factory manager, but like these other places factory workers and their families also lived on the same street. There was no particular class privilege to being the son of the factory manager. My brothers and I played with all the other kids on the street and that even included the black family down the block. My father explains that it was expected at the time that management would live in the communities with factory workers, and he recalls one incident where a factory manager was fired because he refused to do so.

      Almost all of these places have declined or stagnated as factory towns. Even this college town no longer has the factories it once had. My birthplace is doing relatively well, but the birthplaces of Putnam and Murray have struggled over the decades. In Putnam’s hometown, it now has the highest unemployment in the state. Murray’s hometown is holding steady, but lost the main employer, Maytag, that brought in the wealth in his childhood. My father’s hometown of Alexandria IN, once given the title of “Small Town, USA” as part of a WWII propaganda campaign, has really fallen on hard times and has disintegrated as a community. Many of these places, including my birthplace, have become Trump strongholds. But as old factory towns, they used to be strongholds of organized labor and the Democratic Party.

      I recall a telling change in 2016. Richard Nixon, as you know, pushed the Southern Strategy to national prominence. He grew up in Southern California which was full of workers from the South. But in 2016, infamous far right-wing Orange Country that he was born and raised in went Democrat for the first time in a very long time. Meanwhile, there was a county in Kentucky that had continuously voted Democratic candidates for president since the Civil War and Hillary Clinton lost it to Donald Trump. That was part of Trump’s winning strategy, in preying upon the disintegrating culture of trust in once proud white working class communities.

      Empathy has gone out the window, not only empathy for those who are different but even empathy within these communities. The fabric has frayed in the once strong culture of trust. These places are not the tight communities they once were. Even among those that remain factory towns, it’s no longer the expectation that management live in the same town as workers. And when management does, they now live in separate neighborhoods maybe even with separate schools, churches, and stores. This has coincided with the rise of inequality in society in general. It would be hard to encourage empathy in the workplaces in these places when the society itself is creating the conditions more conducive to sociopathy.

      I shared a bit about Murray and Putnam in a couple of posts:

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Since we are in a Kipling mood…

    “When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
    He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
    But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
    For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”


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