jade rubick

Macho leadership and bro culture


Let’s talk about leadership within a macho or bro environment. We’ll explore the elements of these environments, discuss how to navigate your own behavior within these cultures, and talk about what you can do to influence them.

Recognizing macho culture

First of all, let’s talk about how to know you’re actually in an environment that has a macho culture. Often, this is something you’ll just know. But if you’re not sure, some indicators can be:

  • Lots of war metaphors.
  • Use of aggressive, tough language.
  • Jockeying for position or attention.
  • Criticizing others to look good.
  • Blaming without context.

You also may notice that the way people communicate is either:

  • Everyone agrees, because they don’t want to stick out. Or,
  • People are fighting and sniping over everything, because they look good if they are “tough”.

A sign that you’re dealing with a toxic version of macho culture is if you see signs of sexist behavior:

  • Lots of double standards, based on what type of person you are.
  • People being evaluated not by the outcome they produce, but the (aggressive) way they do it.

The downsides of macho and bro culture

What is wrong with having a “tough” environment, or a macho or bro culture?

It’s not always a completely bad thing. There are some aspects of these cultures that are useful in a business environment. Risk-taking behavior, for example, is often valuable. Some people that come across as “bro-ish” are great coworkers!

The two main challenges I see are when:

  1. Macho and bro environments can reinforce conformity.
  2. The culture leaves certain types of people out.

Macho and bro culture often encourage a sort of monoculture. This may surprise the bros, because they “encourage arguments” and “encourage conflict”. But the price of engaging in conflict varied greatly depending on who you are, and your power within the organization. The founders and the other bros will engage in their macho behavior and be rewarded for it. But in my experience, this is rarely done uniformly, because most macho cultures don’t focus on making true dissent and conflict safe. They come from a place where the individual is supposed to be tough, not where the environment is supposed to make it safe for people to be contrarian. So the rules are selectively applied, and only the bros end up “winning”.

This in turn ends up leaving out a lot of people. When you are in an environment where people are afraid to think or act differently, you automatically make some people’s contributions less valued. A lot of people will see that they don’t fit in, so they’ll be discouraged from participating fully. It’s like having a football team where half the players aren’t trying to win – obviously, you won’t win the game.

If you want a team to produce better outcomes, you need a team that can have high quality conversations. Improving the way they perform is often done by improving the level of discussion they have. Macho and bro environments limit the number of people who can participate in those high quality conversations. I have seen some examples of smaller “bro” groups being effective. But they fail when they try to broaden it out beyond that group, because they aren’t able to incorporate other types of people.

They can cause talented people to leave your organization. So it’s really not best for the business, and it can be harmful for the individuals involved.

Why macho behavior thrives

You will see macho behavior in a lot of places. I believe it develops for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that many people have stereotyped and narrow views of leadership. They only interpret aggressive behavior as leadership behavior. This is a filter on their perception, so anything besides that doesn’t look like leadership to them. This is understandable – I would argue it’s a bias most of us have about leadership. But it does result in a limited view of what a leader can look like and what a leader does.

A second reason this thrives is that people seem to naturally emulate their leaders. So if the top few people of an organization act in a particular way, the others will emulate them. I’ve seen this firsthand many times. I noticed myself emulating mannerisms from people I’ve worked for. I first noticed this when watching a documentary on Enron. Many of the leaders there started copying the CEO’s manner of dress, and showy behavior.

We talk like our leaders. We copy their behavior. It’s a natural thing for humans to do. So macho and bro behavior tends to be copied by the rest of the leadership and become entrenched in the work culture.

These behaviors can then be further reinforced by hiring decisions. Because everyone is looking for certain aggressive forms of leadership, all the leaders hired will exhibit these traits. It can become a deep part of a work culture.

Strategies for leaders in macho environments

What do you do when you find yourself working for a manager with these traits? Or when you find yourself working at a bro environment.?

Often, there is not a lot you can do. You can try to influence the situation, but you usually have little control of it.

What I generally do is try to assess the level of influence I have in the situation. If the leader I’m working with is self-aware, and cares about creating a high performing work culture, they may be open to feedback once you have a working relationship. You might be able to say something like, “I’ve noticed that all of us managers are all trying really hard to look ‘tough’ to you. For example, at the last meeting, I saw XYZ. I think part of what’s going on is people are trying to impress you, and they don’t feel safe bringing up bad news.” Or whatever your particular observation is.

But often, I have found that you have to play a sort of dumb game within bro environments. Let’s talk about that.

Using language to navigate bro culture

What I’ve generally found is that you almost have to take all of your work and translate it into macho language.

One funny thing you can use LLMs for is to do this translation or you. One prompt I used once is: “I have a status update. I’d like you to make it sound super macho. Like really, really aggressive. Extra machismo.”

I gave it this update: “The Slack integration project is going to be delayed. We chose to push it back two weeks because an urgent request came in from sales and we decided supporting our biggest deal of the quarter was most important. As a result, the Slack integration will be available at the end of September.”

This is kind of dumb, but it is the sort of translation you may need to use so you are heard. It’s silly, but real.

Advocating for others in bro culture

Another thing you can do is make sure that you translate other people’s behavior into language the bros can understand. They will naturally miss the contributions of many people, so you may have to be the interpreter. You might see someone be criticized or punished because they’re not acting in a way the bro filter can make sense of.

So sometimes you have to translate for others. One thing I’ve found helpful is to create a motto that helps bros understand the value of other people. Or that helps them understand how I’m thinking about it.

For example, you might say, “I don’t care how people do it. I care about the results.”

It sounds good, right? It’s speaking the action language that bros can hear, but it also makes space for people to produce results in different ways.

When to leave a toxic environment

Some types of macho environments can be toxic, and in that case you may (or may not) have the option of leaving.

I had a company I worked at a few years ago that I decided I couldn’t be a part of. I actually liked all the people involved, but the leadership had a macho culture and they couldn’t see the huge contributions the women leaders were making. I just saw it over and over again.

There was always criticism and scrutiny for the women in leadership. But there was lots of room for learning and making mistakes for the men. These double standards are common, but in this place it was egregious enough that I couldn’t be a part of it. If you have the ability to leave, that’s often a good choice.

How to shape bro culture

When you’re in a bro or macho culture, are there ways you can shape it as a leader? I have seen cultures change. But ultimately a lot of this does seem to come from the top of the organization, so the best thing you can do is to leverage any credibility or relationship you have to influence that person. If they are open to it, the team can work on the way they use language, and they can try to bring more diverse leadership styles into the team. They can praise people in public who bring up hard information, or counter the narrative.

This is hard, but typical leadership work. It can be rewarding if it changes, but quite frustrating if there isn’t an openness to change.

Podcast on this topic

I cover macho leadership and bro culture in this episode of Decoding Leadership. It covers almost exactly the same content:

Thank you

Image by Davie Bicker from Pixabay

Comments powered by Talkyard.