Note: This column is part one of a series on the six primary characteristics of white male culture. We will work to examine how these traits show up in the world and tie them to events and behaviors that are in plain view of everyone who follows current events in the U.S. and around the world.
WMFDP invites leaders — the men and women who attend our sessions — to examine the mindsets that exist within their organization’s culture, especially the conscious and unconscious mindsets involving gender, ethnicity/race, religion, sexual orientation and age. By examining these mindsets, we reason, they become spoken and real and conscious. With these newfound insights, leaders can then better foster inclusion in their teams and organizations.
In the US, we begin this mindset examination by focusing on US white male culture because it is the culture that has the most influence on how people think and act. The list always draws attention in our sessions. Many clients find it helpful because it describes the lived experience of “culture” for men and women at work.
Sometimes it creates controversy when others – most often white men – find it too limiting, offensive even. They see the characteristics as universal and positive, and they challenge the notion that any set of characteristics could accurately reflect their culture. “Why,” they ask, “do we have to label them as characteristics of ‘U.S. white male culture’? Why don’t we just call them THE culture?”
We have been describing this culture to our North American clients – senior leaders of all stripes – for over 20 years. Our founders – Michael Welp, Bill Proudman and others – clarified and condensed this culture into six primary characteristics.
When Jim attended his first WMFDP White Men’s Caucus in 2001 and learned about the six characteristics, he remembers feeling fascinated and relieved. “I was fascinated because this organization with a strange name didn’t even know me, yet they could so succinctly describe the codex of values and behaviors I had been working from for 40+years. My relief came from discovering I needn’t be ashamed of these behaviors on the one hand, but on the other hand, I could no longer assume that everyone worked from them as easily as I did.”
When he was first exposed to the list, Noah knew he had found an incredible tool for helping white men become more curious and self reflective about themselves and their own culture. “We can’t change or manage what we don’t see!” he proclaims.
Here are the six characteristics:
- Rugged Individualism
- Low Tolerance for Ambiguity and Uncertainty
- Action is Valued over Reflection
- Time is Linear and Future-Focused
- Rationality is Valued over Emotion
- Status and Rank are Valued over Connection
We have never asserted that this list is THE list. As with every group, the US white male experience is incomprehensibly more complex and varied than this or any list can describe. However, this list does describes one lens to examine and try to make sense of dominant U.S. culture and for literally thousands of men and women in WMFDP sessions, discovering the idea that there actually IS a white male culture began with it.
One interesting note, whether we are asking a group in China, Israel or the U.S. to define or describe the dominant or insider culture of their company, those who are closest to it (the insiders) invariably have the hardest time describing it. And while our expanding international work in many locales is teaching us that these cultural attributes aren’t accurate for many cultures, they are familiar to leaders outside the US as the traits of western business culture.
As we delve deeper into these six characteristics, here are a few reminders:
- Every “successful” individual in a work culture learns how to adopt these attributes, not just the white men. All successful professionals innately do their best to understand and conform to some degree with the dominant or insider culture, not just US white males. They notice non-verbal cues and behaviors that are prevalent and adopt the ones that make sense and help them fit in. Learning to adopt to a culture isn’t wrong or bad, and it doesn’t necessarily mean someone has “sold out” their own culture; they’ve just modified their behavior at work to be more successful,
- Even though everyone learns to adopt these attributes, it can be very taxing to those on the outside to do so. In addition to getting work done, outsiders have to expend energy modifying and self-regulating their behavior everyday to fit in. As a result, the demands on outsiders are tougher; they have to both fit in with the culture AND get their jobs done.
- Each of us experiences the six traits differently based on our innate personalities and what feels comfortable. Paul, an engineer who was a senior leader for a client, disagreed with Action over Reflection as a valid trait of US white male culture. He had developed a professional practice of not acting on any big decision without carefully considering alternative options, and he trained the people in his area to do the same thing. “We do things that way, ever!” he once stated. The fact that Paul and his group behaved in this way doesn’t invalidate Action over Reflection as a trait of the culture, but it does show that not every trait is a neat and tidy fit with each individual. In fact, Paul was able to eventually see that the reason he was training his people to consider alternatives before acting was in response to his company’s “take action, then talk about it” culture.
- Culture, whatever it is, almost always develops as a result of a previous historical context. Each trait is a response to the restrictive or unfavorable conditions that the founders wanted to protect against in the Colonies. For example, Rugged Individualism – self-reliance and self determination – was a reaction to a perceive over-reliance on government, or authority. Low tolerance for uncertainty was a reaction to ambiguous governance practices that could be arbitrarily changed or ignored by the dominant group, and so on.
- The founders of US culture shaped it based solely on their view of what was “right” with no awareness or consideration for how the cultural they were creating would be difficult or impossible for members of other groups to adopt to or be successful in. They were blind to their own culture and the barriers it created for others to achieve “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Culture” is the unspoken and unwritten rules for how things are done within a company, group or society. The task of any leader is to understand their culture so it can be leveraged for its strengths, minimized for its weaknesses and understood for why it advantages some while disadvantaging others.
We invite you to consider WMFDP’s list of the six attributes as a starting point to answer these questions: What is your organization’s culture? How does it impact business results and people? How does implicitly give some an advantage while disadvantaging others? What can you do to make your culture more inclusive for all?