Not Exactly a Joking Matter

Posted by jlubans on September 15, 2015

Caption: Oregon's Rogue River.

I’ve been reading a Harvard Business Review “classic”, “Two Women, Three Men on a Raft.”* The title reads more like a lead-in to a salacious joke than anything to do with the workplace, but it’s not. Once past the title, this story is about a several day, five-raft flotilla, team building effort on Oregon’s wild and wily Rogue River. Each inflatable raft contained four participants and an Outward Bound instructor. Each raft was to be a self-sufficient team, taking care of itself and getting safely through the white water.
For the author, Robert Schrank, this story came to be about sexism (men dissing women) and he is the first to shrug into a hair shirt and to come out with the mea culpas. He concludes most emphatically: “… men, who, when their power is threatened, will pull any woman down…”
For me, ever the contrarian, this story is not about sexism but about failed leadership and teamwork. Sexism, just like divisive squabbles over resources, is a manifestation of failed leadership not a cause of it. Yes, there was plenty of sexism on this river trip - and, yes, there is no shortage of sexism even these “enlightened” days - but, then and now, it’s about a lack of effective leadership and followership. On the Rogue, the people in raft #4 ignored what was happening around them and apparently made no group attempt to address the daily team failures. It appears the instructor was a silent observer.
I’ve been on Outward Bound trips, so have an idea that the instructor – John Rhoades – would likely have made some effort at intervention. Even if he were interested in only the joys of rafting, Rhoades would have been in communication with the instructors in the other rafts – they check in with each other regularly and do pow-wows about what’s happening.
The story’s tipping point – sorry, I cannot help myself - is raft #4 flipping over while one of the women is at the helm giving directions. She freezes and the boat, hitting a boulder, flips, tossing all occupants and gear into the white water. Schrank makes much of the discomfort of being wet and cold and finds no sweetness in adversity. It’s that event which leads to the two men undermining the two women and the women’s becoming less than full participants in raft #4. Indeed the two men’s snide and snarky behavior, even sotto voce, is hard to accept. As a result it appears, the women retreated into stereotypical feminine helplessness and left the hard parts to the big strong men.
I’ve been in a similar situation to the woman’s flipping the raft. It was when I navigated a pulling boat, one dark and stormy night, into a light’ house’s red zone on the rocky and dangerous Maine coast. I felt a pretty hapless sailor and yet found other ways over the days to be an active and contributing participant in my crew.
If I were on raft #4, what would I do differently?
I’d call a time out and ask what’s happening? Here’s what I am seeing. Do you see the same? What can we do differently? What ideas do you have? Can we re-arrange our way of working? The key here is to give time for people to speak. (There’s plenty of time after dinner in the long evenings of June.)
Maybe we’d come up with a way to partner at the helm.
I wish Mr. Schrank had asked the OB instructor what he saw and included that in his story. Was John OK with the tipped over raft? Failure is a way to learn and OB is very good at creating situations, which while appearing high risk in fact are not really dangerous. Could Rhoades have prevented the tip over but chose not to? I wonder. Why was it, according to the men, the woman’s fault? If any fault was to be found, why was the failure not shared?
More questions. Where were the other rafts? Did no one stop and give assistance? Could we draw on the resources in our “organization”, the flotilla? Why not shift people among the five rafts?
And more questions. What’s in our way? What has to happen for us to come together as a genuine, respectful and trusting team?
Instead, raft #4 joined the ranks of countless other pseudo teams, with repressed group development and stymied individual growth. Yes, they got to the end point but at half or less of their potential.
Perhaps, I will use this as a reading for the team-building segment in my class.

* Schrank, Robert. Two Women, Three Mean on a Raft, Pt 1. HBR, May – June 1994, pp. 68-76
Followed by Part 2. (Reflection) HBR, May – June, 1994, pp.77-78.
Both these selections appear in the anthology:
Frost, Peter J., Vance F. Mitchell, and Walter R. Nord. 1997. “Organizational reality: reports from the firing line.” Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley. Pp 131-137 & pp. 242-247.
Schrank’s essay was “first published by HBR in 1977
and then re-issued in 1994 by HBR. Part 2 includes a “17 years later” assessment, which features lengthy, sexism-confirming comments by three women leaders. One of the three was on raft #4.

© John Lubans 2015
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