What are you doing about alpha-male type behavior?

Photo by dboy

A few days ago the Research Digest Blog published a post called “How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo” describing how negative behaviors like demonstrating physical prowess, taking risks, concealing technical incompetence and coming across as fearless and unflappable were deterred in an oil rig by adopting collectivist goals (especially putting safety first), defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals and having a learning orientation towards work.

It surprises me every time to see that individuals in companies and societies adopt behaviors that are detrimental to the general good of the organization because of fear of consequences and humiliation. Bob Sutton in his latest post discusses this in the context of learning from mistakes, quoting from an article by Larry Prusak about the importance of being wrong and learning from it. Sutton emphasizes how he, as someone that writes about this subject on a regular basis, was amazed to reconsider his reaction to Alan Greenspan’s admission that he was wrong after the financial crisis after rethinking about it as part of the process of learning from failure. Instead of celebrating the fact that someone high up in our government admitted their mistake and tried to learn from them, most of the press devoted to this admission concentrated on the outcome of the mistakes that already happned. A missed opportunity to learn and develop for the future.

The oil rig study reminded me of a different study/story that I heard about on radiolab (and is also described by Sutton in his book and here). To make a long story short: scientists following a group of baboons discovered that the group, which was characterized by bulling and violence, completely changed its behavior after a disaster killed almost all of the alpha males in the group. The new males that arrived in the group did not start acting like bullies because they had no role models for this behavior. The culture that developed in the group was much safer, collectivistic and emphatic.

Besides the fact that these kinds of findings always reminds me that we need more women in key roles, it also says something about the approach managers should adopt to individualistic alpha male type behavior. If it is hiding information or bullying others it should be banned entirely. This means that managers should not only actively discourage such behaviors by calling it on the spot and by firing people who fail to stop demonstrating such behaviors but should supplement it with a supportive atmosphere for behaviors that are in the greater interests of the group.

Elad

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