Years ago I was tasked with conducting exit interviews for a company with 60 percent turnover. As I assessed the data, one of the top five reasons why people were rushing for the exits pointed to the CEO.

The surprising word that came up the most in the surveys, in regards to that CEO? Bully. Have you worked for a bully boss?

If you're wondering why bullying, harassment, and toxic leadership are tolerated, a revealing new research study by psychologists from Lawrence University and the University of British Columbia, puts a new three-word label on the root of the problem:

"masculinity contest culture."

The researchers found that a masculinity contest culture "endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness."

Our upbringings as men may have something to do with the issue. Boys learn to identify early in their development that there are certain behaviors and social norms associated with what makes them a "man." We're told to "man up" and "don't be a sissy" to conform to cultural beliefs and other people's expectations about what it means to be a man.

In turn, the research asserts, society ends up producing "dominant, tough, risk-taking, aggressive, rule-breaking" men. And many of these men become leaders, producing "organizational dysfunction, as employees become hyper-competitive to win."

4 Toxic Masculine Norms

As reported in Harvard Business Review, the researchers assessed workplace cultures through a validated instrument consistent with an overarching masculinity contest construct. Across two studies involving thousands of workers, they found that bullies are tolerated and even, at times, highly praised. Sabotage is common and illness, burnout, and sexual harassment are prevalent.

Four masculine norms, which together define masculinity contest culture, were found:

1. "Show no weakness."

"A workplace that demands swaggering confidence, never admitting doubt or mistakes, and suppressing any tender or vulnerable emotions ('no sissy stuff')," stated the report.

2. "Strength and stamina."

"A workplace that prizes strong or athletic people (even in white collar work) or those who show off their endurance (e.g., by working extreme hours)," stated the report.

3. "Put work first."

A workplace where nothing outside the organization--even families--can interfere with work; even taking a break or time off may come across as lack of commitment.

4. "Dog eat dog."

A workplace where ruthless competition rules and no one can be trusted; "winners" are the most masculine, and their intent is to defeat the "losers," i.e., the less masculine.

Together, this lethal mixture is extremely harmful to an organization. From the HBR report:

Organizations that score high on masculinity contest culture tend to have toxic leaders who abuse and bully others to protect their own egos; low psychological safety such that employees do not feel accepted or respected, feeling unsafe to express themselves, take risks, or share new ideas; low work/family support among leaders, discouraging work-life balance; sexist climates where women experience either hostility or patronizing behavior; harassment and bullying, including sexual harassment, racial harassment, social humiliation and physical intimidation."

Because of its prevalence, truth is, you may be unwillingly working in a masculinity contest culture as you read this paragraph.  

The solution

The researchers have put forth several recommendations to take down the strongholds of a masculinity contest culture, which I have highlighted below:

  • Champions at the highest levels of leadership and HR, with the power to speak up and create culture change, must step up their game and examine and diagnose their cultures.
  • Generate awareness of the masculinity contest and its role in creating organizational problems. Researchers stress that sexual harassment is falsely attributed to a "few bad apples," when, in fact, the current culture is responsible for allowing and even rewarding the misconduct. "When organizations do not tolerate bullying and harassment, the bad apples are kept in check and good apples do not go bad," states the report.
  • Tie your compliance training and interventions in meaningful and authentic ways to your organization's core mission, values, and goals. A common mistake, which backfires, is to frame compliance as trying to "make things better for the women and minorities" rather than for everyone, say the researchers. 
  • Promote psychological safety so that team members "know that they can raise questions or voice doubts without eliciting ridicule or rejection."
  • Become more hospitable and inclusive toward women and minorities, which the researchers assert as the groups "whose ideas are most often summarily ignored or dismissed in masculinity contest cultures."
  • Leaders must publicly reject masculinity contest norms and empower others to voice their previously secret dissent. Research has shown that people in masculinity contest cultures think their coworkers embrace these norms when in fact they do not.
  • Leaders must change reward systems, model new behavior and punish the misconduct previously overlooked or rewarded.
  • Leaders need to ensure that people who speak up are no longer punished or retaliated against for doing so.