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Male workplace lesson: balance joking with caring

February 13, 2017

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642,

If the politics of the past year has yielded a forbidding image of American men, some new workplace research should have a moderating effect. And, although focusing on an overwhelmingly male occupation, firefighting, the authors of the new research believe their findings are relevant to less male-dominated workplaces as well.

The study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, explores the emotional milieu of firefighters in dozens of stations in a major metropolitan area. It finds that two cultures predominate – those of joviality and of what the study calls "companionate love," a culture in which "the importance of showing compassion, affection, and caring in times of need was a deeply held assumption." At one station, for example, crew members raised thousands of dollars to help a colleague keep his house when he got in financial trouble, even though he had, as one firefighter put it, "burnt tons of bridges" in the department.

Jovialty, in contrast, meant, in the study's words, "being able to have fun and take a joke" and partaking in "pranks and practical jokes." For example, when asked what kind of person would be a good fit at his station, a supervisor at one locale responded, "No stiffs," while a firefighter added, "You have to be able to take a joke and have fun."

If joviality in an overwhelmingly male setting did not come as a surprise to the researchers, companionate love did. In the words of the study, by Olivia Amanda O'Neill of George Mason University and Nancy Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania, it has been widely assumed that “the avoidance of vulnerability and compassion are inherent to what it means to be a man. This seeming paradox – the presence of a strong culture of companionate love…illustrates the importance of adopting a more nuanced, contextualized view of masculine organizational culture."

It is striking a balance between the two cultures that works best. As the authors explain, "The positive aspects of a culture of joviality and a culture of companionate love can work together to temper one another and allow individuals to flourish...Although hundreds of millions of Beatles followers believe 'all you need is love,' our findings indicate that companionate love really should be examined in conjunction with other discrete emotions."

More specifically, in fire stations where both cultures were strong, workers were significantly less likely to engage in risky behaviors off the job than was the case in locales where one or the other culture was weak. Risk-taking was measured by the extent men agreed with such statements as "I like the feeling that comes with physical risks," and "the greater the risk, the more fun the activity."

Another surprising finding was that in such a male-dominated workplace, work-family conflict emerged as a prominent issue. Many of the firefighters coped with it by suppressing the emotions they experienced on the job. The professors found that, for those firefighters who experienced high work-family conflict and coped by suppressing their emotions, having a strong culture of companionate love significantly lowered the incidence of such common ailments as insomnia, headaches, indigestion, and fatigue. In contrast, a culture of joviality tended to exacerbate those health problems. The professors call the findings "particularly compelling" evidence that "the emotional culture of the work unit was a crucial factor in determining whether the strain from high work-family conflict bled over into the participants' physical health."

The study consists of two parts. Initially the researchers carried out exploratory group interviews at 27 firehouses in a major metropolitan area – in urban, suburban and rural locales alike – seeking "to capture salient as well as hidden aspects of create a situation in which crew members interacted with each other naturally as a group so we could observe spontaneous nonverbal manifestations of the emotional culture that emerged."

As Prof. O'Neill explains, "We tried to avoid preconceptions about what themes would emerge. I had previously done research on emotional culture among the largely female staff of a long-term-care facility, where companionate love was very much in evidence, and a question this raised is whether something similar would be true in a largely male workplace. That this culture emerged strongly, in combination with a strong culture of joviality, was something prior behavioral research on men had not led us to anticipate."

In about 37% of the fire stations surveyed, it was found, both cultures were strong; in about 30% both were weak; in 19% joviality was strong and companionate love weak; and in 15% joviality was weak and companionate love strong.

With these findings in hand, the researchers expanded their investigation to 68 crews to probe, through written surveys, the relationship between the two predominant emotional cultures and an array of behavioral and performance variables. In addition to the behavioral results detailed above, they uncovered some notable relationships to firefighting performance. In the words of the study, "a stronger culture of joviality was associated with lower coordination time, meaning faster response time [to fires].” But, at the same time, it was also associated with a higher likelihood of auto accidents going to and from fires and increased damage by firefighters to victims’ property, buildings, and vehicles.

In conclusion, Profs. O'Neill and Rothbard broaden their perspective to workplaces in general, writing that “leaders would do well to cultivate rituals, practices, and policies that make companionate love a desirable and normal practice.” How to do this? Says O’Neill, “First recognize that workplace culture involves not just cognitive values, like the need for teamwork or innovation, but emotions as well. Then pay attention to the emotions you express every day, modulating them as needed. For example, our study found joviality to be associated with good group coordination, so if lack of coordination is a problem, try to lighten things up. If stress is a problem, as it so often is, warmth and kindness should be at a premium.”

The professors end with a caution. “When work units lack a strong culture of companionate love,” they write, “a strong culture of joviality could exacerbate negative tendencies associated with masculinity…In some corporate contexts, the types of jokes and pranks we observed that were associated with a strong culture of joviality might be considered harassment or bullying. This possibility underscores the importance of the tempering effect of companionate love for harnessing the positive aspects of an organization’s emotional culture.”

The paper, “Is Love All You Need? The Effects of Emotional Culture, Suppression, and Work-Family Conflict on Firefighter Risk-Taking and Health" is in the February/March issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published six times yearly by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 126 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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