When you think of safety topics for work, vulnerability probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. It certainly wasn't for Tommy Chreene, an oil rig veteran working in the Gulf of Mexico in 1997. Around that time, Shell embarked on a massive project: building Ursa, the world's deepest oil drilling platform at that time. As part of the effort to build something no one had attempted before, Rick Fox, the Shell exec in charge of the project, scheduled workshops to help the riggers get in touch with their feelings.
Yes, you read that right. Tommy Chreene and his colleagues spent over twelve hours a day in these workshops practicing vulnerability. The story of this grand experiment was documented in a recent Invisibilia podcast called "The New Norm", researched and put together by Hanna Rosin of NPR.
What Do You Mean By Vulnerable?
As expected, at first the men bristled at their emotional lives becoming a workplace safety training topic. After all, many had spent years cultivating a traditional form of masculinity best summarized as, "boys don't cry". Oil rigs were incredibly dangerous places. Workplace injuries and even deaths were common. The unwritten rule was that workers were allowed up to 15 minutes to mourn even the most gruesome deaths, then it was time to get back to work. These sessions were designed to cut through those years of training and encourage the men to be vulnerable in front of each other.
One exercise asked the men to tell the story of their lives in front of their fellow workers. As reported by NPR, "The men told stories of failed relationships and alcoholic parents. They talked about how they were hungry as children." One of the participants told reporter Hanna Rosin that, "It felt vulnerable. You put your personal life out there for everybody to hear and everybody to see." The article continues, "Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son's terminal illness."
A Workplace Safety Training Topic?
The project piqued the interest of Robin Ely and Debra Meyerson, of Harvard and Stanford respectively. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, they explained how vulnerability is, in fact, a key safety topic to discuss at work. "Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, 'I need help, I can't lift this thing by myself, I'm not sure how to read this meter.' That alone is about being vulnerable." In other words, the workers learned to trust their colleagues enough to be vulnerable.
How did the team's newly open communication affect safety in their workplace? After the workshops, Shell reported a companywide accident rate that fell by a stunning 84 percent. Ely explains, "In that same period, the company's level of productivity in terms of numbers of barrels and efficiency and reliability exceeded the industry's previous benchmark."
As it turned out, the old methods of communication (which were essentially non-communication) protected the men's reputations as tough guys, but held back their effectiveness and threatened their safety. When they embraced more open communication, they were no longer afraid to speak up about uncertainty or unsafe conditions. This story parallels the extraordinary workplace climate change that happened at Alcoa in the late 1980s.
What are your experiences with vulnerability and communication at work? Would you consider setting up training like this as a safety topic for work? Do you think it would improve your workplace safety culture? Why or why not?
Hear the full story on the original podcast: