Deadliest Catch: Five secrets to winning over a tough team

Matt Bradley: problem solver
Matt Bradley: problem solver

The Northwestern has had its share of trouble in Season 10. It almost caught on fire, the steering broke & then half the fresh water was lost due to a leak. The men working 20 hour days doing physical labor were barred from taking showers. Edgar even brushed his teeth using coffee. (“Not half bad!” he opined about the toothpaste/coffee mix.)

But the one hit hardest by this was Matt. Watching how he dealt with his team piling on about his BO was one of the most instructive lessons I’ve ever had in how to deal effectively with a real problem in front of an aggressive group. Watch how he does it.

The classic definition of a Salty Tar

You could almost hear the relish in Mike Rowe’s voice as he called Matt’s aroma a “manly musk”. All the fishermen stunk, but Matt stunk worst. Eating dinner, his crew joked about how badly he smelled. They told him, quite literally, that he smelled like shit. Sadly, Discovery has not yet developed Smello-cam, but based on his reactions and the universal comments of his crew, his fragrance was appalling. But what could he do? The remaining freshwater was needed to run the engines. He wasn’t ALLOWED to take a shower. His work required him to work hard, and in working hard he sweated. He had no options for fixing the problem, and so he just grinned back and kept working.

But on deck, the situation got worse. The men of the Northwestern are not ones to delicately pass by the opportunity to discuss your aromatic characteristics in case your feelings get hurt. Every time he walked by they’d tell him how awful he smelled. They left him alone on the crab sorting table with a “crabalanche” in front of him because (they said) he smelled so bad. At one point a look crossed his face as he realized: this was not going away, and this was not going to get better.

Matt stalked off the deck.

Now, Matt has a temper. We’ve seen fistfights before. We’ve also seen our fair share of greenhorns running up to the captain complaining that the crew is not treating them right. (This is often true. See also: poor Myles on the Cape Caution). I wondered what he would do: take a forbidden shower? Show them how much less fun it is to work on a deck one seasoned hand down? Douse himself in cologne? Tell the captain that they need to lay off him, that it’s not his fault? Wipe his body down with a damp towel and hope it improves things enough to stop all the teasing?

He comes back onto the deck, stripped down. He takes off his shirt as he walks to the middle, leaving boxers and his wellingtons. (Still can’t figure out why he left his boots on!) Then, he jumps in the crab tank. In January. On the Bering Sea. In sub-freezing temperatures. In front of all his crewmates. He stayed in long enough to get totally wet, making a huge show of scrubbing his armpits with a bar of soap. As he comes out, his “friends” aim the saltwater hose at him to help him rinse off.

But once that’s done, his teammates thank him for fixing the issue and all the teasing stops.

I’ve never actually seen someone effectively counter that kind of personal, embarrassing, destructive abuse before. And Matt, with his tank-dunking technique, not only completely countered it, he used it as a way to make himself closer and more respected by the very jerks who were tormenting him.

I thought a lot about that last night, and I think I’ve isolated some of the elements that made this most effective.

1) He didn’t deny there was a problem
Matt didn’t try to deflect the issue at all. He owned it. “What day is it? I can say I haven’t taken a shower all year!” He didn’t diminish the concerns of his team, he didn’t remind them they smelled bad too, and he didn’t trot out the excuses for his stench. He just moved on.

2) He correctly judged the point of no return
He didn’t fall all over himself to fix the issue until it was clear that it wouldn’t resolve, and was escalating. He didn’t escalate the issue himself (see also: decking the other guys), but he didn’t start panicking at the first joke about his olfactory objections. He waited until the issue was clear & quantified.

3) He thought “outside the box”
Matt’s solution never crossed my mind. It probably didn’t cross his teammates, either. There was a solution to his problem (which did require great personal sacrifice). He was clearly thinking about it, instead of getting mad or feeling trapped. None of this would be possible without his problem solving creativity.

4) He fixed the problem obviously, and in public
If it had been me, I would have been hiding in my bunk trying to fix the smell. But Matt was smart enough to know it wasn’t just about the smell, it was about the reputation of smell. Even if he’d snuck in a surreptitious shower and fixed the actual issue, I bet he wouldn’t have gotten much credit for it. They either would have continued to tease him about his (now non-existent) smell, or made fun of him for caring that much. Making his ablutions in front of the entire crew was the ONLY way that he could permanently put this issue to bed. It is KEY that Matt did this in front of everyone – with a smile. Not only that, but Matt enhanced his reputation for toughness (a key on the Bering Sea) while erasing his reputation for stench. An illicit shower would have been more thorough, but it would have been massively less effective.

5) He engaged his critics in the fix
It may not have been part of his original plan, but when the guys turned the seawater hose on him, they were buying into his solution. He didn’t duck the stream, or get pissed. He took just long enough in the stream to make the other deck hands feel like he accepted their addition to his solution. As he walked off the deck (freezing cold, holy cow) his teammates were thanking him for solving the problem, grinning and clapping him on the back.

Matt managed to take a really uncomfortable situation of being ostracized and humiliated for his unavoidable odor, and turn it into a way to bond more deeply with his team and enhance his reputation. I was deeply impressed.

Now, I don’t work crab boats on the Bering Sea, and I’m unlikely to be in the exact same pickle. But I have never been able to figure out how to handle situations where you’re coming under fire for a deeply personal problem with no clear resolution. Matt just gave a masterclass in doing just that.

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