What Is This Toxic Masculinity? Why Should You Care?

Creating a High Performance Culture

Toxic masculinity! If you haven’t heard this term, you will. It has become a trendy topic on social media, blogs, and talk shows. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a new disease that had been discovered. I am an average American male. I am not a celebrity, a PhD holder, a famous athlete or a billionaire businessman. I had to find out if this toxic masculinity affected the average guy. I did my own research. This is what I found:

Wikipedia and Webster define toxic masculinity as: Those aspects of traditional masculinity perceived to reinforce aggression, emotionlessness and other negative qualities, theorized as a component of masculine ideology, particularly in the United States.

It is often validated by the statement “boys will be boys.”

The concept of toxic masculinity is used in psychology and gender studies to refer to certain norms of masculine behavior in North America and Europe that are associated with harm to society, women, and to men themselves.

Psychiatrist Frank Pittman wrote about the ways in which men are harmed by traditional masculine norms, suggesting this includes shorter lifespans, greater incidence of violent death, and ailments such as lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

Hmmm… sounds like a cultural thing that has been reinforced since the cavemen days. The strongest individual became the leader based on the need to survive. Given that men are generally physically stronger than women, the alpha male became the undisputed and unchallenged leader. Seemed to make sense back then, but I haven’t seen much of a need in the last 300 plus years to hunt down a water buffalo with sticks and rocks of fend off a saber-toothed tiger. Yet this pattern of defining and raising boys continues and still occurs today.

Toxic masculinity is thus defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the "alpha male") and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger.

This concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition.

This is not an indictment on men. The vast majority of men understand there is a time and a place for competition and self-reliance, however, there are those who are inclined to take these characteristics to the extreme. This is where problems occur.

Our goal is to get this topic out in the open for conversation and education. Open discourse in a positive and supportive environment is the key understanding and altering the harmful effects of toxic masculinity.

Contemporary expectations of masculinity can produce such "toxic" effects as violence (including sexual assault and domestic violence), "sexual excess" (promiscuity), excessively risky and/or socially irresponsible behaviors including substance abuse, dysfunction in relationships, and suicide.

Vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness—the weak must be weeded out. Too many men perform a self-weeding when they feel vulnerable. In 2016 there were 45,000 suicides in the United States. 33,750—75 percent were men.

This type of behavior is both magnified and glorified daily. A great deal of money is paid to and for content directly or indirectly supporting toxic masculinity. Some examples include:

  • Violence in video games

The game-winner inflicts the greatest amount of violence and mayhem.

  • Violence in movies

Graphic and often unnecessary acts of violence.

  • Athletics

Athletics and competition at their core are healthy and positive. From early youth sports to professional leagues, competition builds character, teamwork, willing to sacrifice for a greater good, striving for excellence, competing within the rules and guidelines, representing your team, city, school, or community to the best of our ability and accepting the outcome with class and dignity. For those few who are blessed with the physical attributes and skills, athletics provide an extremely lucrative lifestyle which is often envied by men prone to toxic masculinity behavior.

The dark side includes: breaking the rules in order to win at all costs, a sense of entitlement and privilege (rules don’t apply to you), locker room behavior which demeans women, and others who were not blessed with the skills or talent.

  • TV shows (such as Mad Men)

Programs that depict a time when overt harassment, infidelity and demeaning of women and subordinates, excessive drinking (three cocktail lunches) was accepted and rewarded.

  • Abusive and over bearing bosses and managers

People who are risen to positions of power, wealth and prominence who use their power to suppress, harass, and abuse people.

  • Speeches and actions of political leaders

Openly mocking, demeaning, inciting or suggesting acts of violence or harassment.

So what do we do? As men, we have to realize, understand and accept that boorish and abusive behavior in any form to any person is not acceptable. We cannot continue to condone or look the other way when we find ourselves in an environment where toxic behavior is occurring.

Why are so many men confused about what to do?

Many of us were taught growing up that boys and men are supposed to be strong. Strong meaning we don’t cry; we don’t talk about emotions or feelings; we do whatever it takes to be successful; we are self-reliant enough to solve whatever issue or problems or situation that occurs. For those of us who are old enough to remember, the ideal American Man was the Marlboro Man (a rugged individual, out working alone, riding his horse, who didn’t need anything or anyone).

Our image of American life was from the TV shows, like Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie & Harriett, where the father went to work and mother stayed home, ran errands, cleaned the house wearing a dress, heels, and pearls. If women did work, they were secretaries who make coffee, answered phones and filed papers; or they were teachers who were portrayed as glorified babysitters.

Then in the 1960s and 70s, more women started entering the workforce often out economic necessity. They were putting off marriage (less and less were getting married at 18 or 19). Women had more choices. More and more women graduated from college and were capable of supporting themselves. They didn’t need a man to be the sole provider and protector. In many cases, they didn’t need a man at all.

The women’s movement started. Women were openly and aggressively speaking out; there were marches and rallies; women were starting businesses; being elected to public office. Today, in 2019, 127 women serve in Congress. 25 women (25 percent) serve in the US Senate, and 102 women (23.4 percent) serve in the US House of Representatives.

Today women outnumber men in college, in grad schools and in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

The newer wave of TV sit-coms were coming out where the man is portrayed as a buffoon and the woman is the strong leader of the family. Man and husband bashing became more common on TV (Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Everyone Loves Raymond, Black-ish. etc...).

For some men, this was more than they could handle. The men’s myth was shattered! Men discovered, whether we admitted it or not, that we cannot do it on our own. We needed our spouse/significant other to work to make ends meet. We were vulnerable and had no training or support system to help us. Men have to unlearn a lifetime of training and culture.

Some men became resentful. This paradigm shift preyed on their male insecurity, “We no longer the king of our castle. We have to remain in control and put these women in their place. We want things the way they use to be.”

Those days are gone. They are not coming back. A new order is emerging where men and women will work and live together in a collaborative and mutually beneficial manner. It is going to take time and patience. But it is going to happen.

What are the effects of toxic masculinity in business?

I talk to some men who tell me, “Look, I am not into that touchy-feely stuff. I am all about business and being strong and self-reliant is what business is all about.”

Really! Toxic masculinity is not just a social issue. It can seriously impact your business, professional, and personal life. Let me tell you my story.

I was a small/medium size business CEO for over 20 years. I believe the most difficult job in the word is being a successful small business owner. Why? The rules are constantly changing. Change is coming FASTER than our ability to understand the change and take action. No matter how smart you are or how much experience you have, you CANNOT fight this battle alone. I know because I tried.

When I was a CEO, the biggest challenge I faced was finding someone, without an agenda, to talk too; to bounce ideas off; to discuss financial and personnel issues; to discuss how they addressed some of the issues I faced.

I didn’t look very hard because I believed I could handle it myself. I was extremely good at what I did; I trusted my judgment and I was competitive enough that I would usually win the deal.

I felt I didn’t need or want an advisor or a sounding board, so I put all the burden on myself. Well, that burden started off as a little ripple and over time it grew to a tidal wave which negatively impacted every area of my life.

My temperament changed to the point where I didn’t even like me. I drank too much, was angry, frustrated and depressed. I felt like I was on a treadmill that keeps going faster and faster. No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t keep up.

My marriage of 24 years failed. I lost patience with my staff and dealing with my customers and my business became an annoyance. It was not a pleasant time in my life.

When my wife left, I had custody of my two daughters who were 10 and 15 at the time. I had to change. There was no way I was going to raise my daughters alone when I was suffering from I now know is toxic masculinity.

I had to make sure my daughters saw that men were able to talk and discuss issues in a calm, non-judgmental matter. That men could be counted on for support.

I could not run a business and raise my daughters without help. I started working with professionals, who helped me understand that it is not a sign of weakness to fail as long as I learned from the process; that I was not less of a man to seek and ask for help.

Something had to change. But what?

  1. I had to be open and willing to talk with and listen to my daughters
  2. I had to talk about their and my fears
  3. I had to learn how to validate their feeling
  4. I had to learn I cannot fix everything

Oh my God—for many men, this is dying and going to HELL.

My daughters both graduated from college and have become confident and secure young women. They both have promising careers and are making a positive impact in the world.

When my youngest daughter graduated, I sold my company and dedicated myself to helping businesses leaders and their organizations thrive both personally and professionally. I have joined forces with Kris Lea, PhD, and Marc Porter, PhD, because if we can help just one person or organizations avoid the land mines that I stepped on, then we have made a positive contribution.

So let me address the impact on your professional life. If you are a business owner, executive or manager, we must understand that building a culture of acceptance, civility, and collaboration is good for businesses. The toxic masculinity days of yelling, pounding on the table, public shaming and “because I said so” are over. Let’s face it, it never worked very well anyway. A great strategy in a toxic culture is doomed to failure. Some examples of great strategy and poor culture include Enron, Uber (trying to recover), Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and Bernie Madoff.

Poor culture and lack of civility creates self-sabotage:

  • Breeds unhappiness
  • People lose hope
  • Breeds mediocracy
  • Settle for “good enough”
  • Best people often leave

Further creating or allowing a toxic environment will lead to civil or criminal charges:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Hostile workplace
  • Massive legal expenses
  • Potential incarceration
  • End of career and/or business

Why is eliminating a toxic culture good for business?

The best and brightest people will gravitate to organizations that create a culture of civility, positive feedback, cohesive team building, and achieve results collaboratively. This involves listening, talking, validating and not trying to fix everything. Employees need to feel they are being heard and valued.

People thrive in environments of mutual respect and appreciation. Good leaders ensure their people feel they are worth their time and interest. Getting to know employees personally and professionally, praising them for things they do well, offering guidance for things they don’t and helping them to achieve their goals goes a long way in creating trust and loyalty and in turn success in business.

So now what? Like it or not, whether we admit it or not men have emotions. Learning how to channel and address our emotions without resorting to anger will improve every aspect of our life.

Punching a hole in the wall doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it will cost you time and money to repair. Worse, punching a person physically or verbally will likely land you in jail. If you need someone to talk to—talk to us. Talking about and through situations will reduce the negative impacts of toxic masculinity. Plus it is a whole lot less painful and expensive than home repair, legal fees, and time in jail.

Call us, let’s talk, we’ll help you.

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Frank Zaccari

Written five books based on life altering events; teaches aspiring entrepreneurs at Arizona State; mentor with the Veterans Treatment Court and University of California Entrepreneurship Academy; Radio show host - Life Altering Events

See all posts by Frank Zaccari