Toolbox Talks: What can a cowboy teach you?

cowboy with lasso silhouette at small-town rodeo. Note image contains added grain.

If you’ve been around industrial workers for even a short amount of time you’ve likely heard people or groups referred to as “cowboys.”

You’re probably already conjuring up an image of this person in your head. This person is rough and tough and “old school.”

This person looks at danger and shrugs. This person has their own way of doing things, but by golly they get the job done. Sure, they might not be following all the rules but there’s a begrudging respect because they get results.

Here’s the problem: That begrudging respect keeps us from getting better as a team. It’s not about “getting it done,” it’s about getting it done the right way.

We’ve been conditioned by media and entertainment to respect the cowboy and just get out of their way.

It’s the rogue cop that destroys half a city block but still gets the bad guy. It’s the dark superhero who protects us all even though the clueless DA, so stuck on the rules, calls them a menace.

It’s the worker who says “get out of my way, bumbling supervisor, so I can deftly show you how easily I can plug that well, tame that machine, or quiet the plant and establish my role as the protagonist with all the skills and no time for your politics.”

The idea of the “cowboy” is a dangerous concept that provides cover for supervisors and managers who want to turn a blind eye.

“Old Bob, he’s a cowboy. I just cut him loose and he gets the job done.” The implication is “I’m sure I don’t want to see how he does it, but since he’s not getting hurt and producing like crazy, I’m certainly not going to coach him to be safer or ask him to change dangerous behaviors.”

“He’s a cowboy; whatchagonna do?”

Do you work in an industry where the excuse for not adopting an improvement initiative or new, safer expectation is something to the effect of “I don’t think that will work for my guys.They’re just different. They’re a bunch of cowboys and that’s not going to change”? But it can.

Think about rodeo and bull-riding. Twenty years ago you didn’t see helmets, face masks, flak jackets, and mouth guards. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a rider without these items.

The cowboy—our prototypical rough and tumble, danger seeking, get-it-done individual—has started to throw off that definition and changed their behavior to increase their personal safety.

If the cowboy culture can change, why can’t yours?

The next time someone tries minimize or excuse dangerous behavior by chalking it up to cowboy behavior, point out to them that even cowboys use PPE.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.