How Learning To Be Vulnerable Can Make Life Safer
Angus Chen reports at NPR (and at the link is also a podcast):
Men who worked on oil rigs lived by certain rules. They were tough. They worked under any conditions. They didn’t ask questions. It was this way as far back as Tommy Chreene, 60, who started working on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico back when he was 15, can remember.
Back then, it wasn’t unusual to see someone die on an oil rig. Chreene remembers the death of one man who had just finished a shift. He was standing before an enormous pipe that the workers twisted into the ground and held in place with a handle. The man kicked the handle, and the tension on the pipe released. It caught the man’s ankle as it whipped around.
“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.”
Even though the men faced the risk of death every day, Chreene says they never showed any vulnerability. This made the work even more perilous, because the men didn’t ask for help, didn’t admit if they weren’t up to a certain job.
But in the 1990s, the oil companies started exploring in much deeper water — more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf. That meant whole new challenges, logistically and technologically.
In 1997, Shell began building a deepwater platform, Ursa — a $1.45 billion behemoth that would stand 48 stories tall and, when completed, would become the world’s deepest offshore well. Rick Fox, the asset leader for Ursa, says executing something this vast was a struggle, beyond the scale of anything they’d ever attempted. Something needed to change, he says, if Ursa was going to be built and operated safely.
“We had to look at the organization and see if we could do something better,” Fox says. “And who knew what that was going to open?”
Then Fox got a call from a woman named Claire Nuer. She was a leadership consultant, a Holocaust survivor and a devotee of California New Age circles. She had heard about the seemingly insurmountable project, and she said she could help. When Fox started talking about technical problems like drilling schedules, she stopped him. She said he wasn’t dealing with his real problem: his fear. The change Fox needed, she said, to make Ursa work, was in how the men dealt with their feelings.
That wasn’t going to be easy. These men had been raised on the rig code, at work and at home. Fox was raising his son, Roger, with it, although it was getting in the way of their relationship. Roger remembers the first time he heard the term “Phillips head screwdriver,” when his dad had asked him to get one.
“I didn’t think to say, ‘Hey, Dad … I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Roger Fox says. “So I went to the shop to look for something, I had no idea what it was, and felt stuck ’cause — I didn’t want to be vulnerable.”
“We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really,” Fox’s son, Roger, says now.
Nuer felt that management problems had a lot more to do with interior struggles than with the kinds of things typically taught in business school. Creating environments where people supported each other, she thought, would free them to make great contributions. For people to make those kinds of fundamental changes, it helped to have the involvement of not just their co-workers but their family members, too.
Fox was moved by Nuer, and convinced his son Roger to attend one of her seminars with him in California. There’s a recording from back then where Roger tells his father that he’s intolerant of weakness. “Yeah, that would be me,” Fox replies. “Roger, you know, I take this really seriously. It’s ruined a lot of our good times together.”
Fox says the session worked. It transformed his relationship with his son. He thought that if Nuer could cut through 18 years of family tension, then she just might be what he needed for the Ursa project. . .