They explore the steps that Shell took in the mid-nineties to radically change the culture on the oil rigs before the completion of its biggest ever deep-water platform – Ursa. Traditional rig culture was governed by strict rules – you had to be ‘tough’, you didn’t ask questions and you didn’t express your feelings. Despite the perilous nature of the work (witnessing the death of a colleague was not uncommon), rig workers did not show any vulnerability. Men were reluctant to ask for help, to admit when they didn’t know the answer – something which could be fatal.
This changed when they were contacted by a leadership consultant who said that she could help them. She told them that in order to ensure Ursa was a success, they need to address their fear. Over the next 18 months, the rig workers were put through an intensive program to open them up – they shared stories of their personal lives, they stood face to face and asked each other meaningful questions, and they cried. They said things that they didn’t want to say, and they heard things they didn’t want to hear. But ultimately they realised things about themselves that they hadn’t known before and became more open and more vulnerable. They changed.
So how did this help Shell? This new openness amongst the rig workers enabled other communication to flow more freely – questions, requests for help, admitting to mistakes etc. Shell cite that the process contributed to an 84% reduction in Shells accident rate, as well as increased productivity and efficiency.
we may or may not work in a comparably high risky environment but I believe this is something that we can all learn from. Many of the organisations we work with employ staff in challenging roles, requiring staff to manage their emotions while they support others to express what they feel. Yes we need resilient and emotionally intelligent staff and there is a time and a place but to some extent, surely creating a culture where people can acknowledge and show their vulnerability must lead to better communication and an environment that encourages people to learn creating a supportive network of colleagues that understand and appreciate each other so that emotions and feelings, specifically those related to work, do not boil over.
I am not suggesting we should spend our team meetings standing nose-to-nose, asking deeply personal questions (as the rig workers did) but I am suggesting that we all need to think about our own workplace cultures.
Do our staff feel they can be honest? Are people able to own up to mistakes and ask questions? Are people supported and supportive? And if not, what can we do to change this?