Traits of US White Male Culture: Action over Reflection
Noah Prince, Senior Consultant

Note: This column is part 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 US and around the world.

A good friend once asked me if I knew what a Frank Sinatra leader is. He said some leaders believe to be is to do, while others believe to do is to be, and a third group know the value of do-be-do-be doing their way through work. This third group, he said, is the Frank Sinatra leaders.

Action (doing) produces results and creates movement. Reflection (being) means taking stock, observing and noticing. US white male culture, the culture that drives our business habits and which can be broken down into six distinctive traits, traditionally values doing over being.

As a white male in the US, I am rewarded–and notice others being rewarded–for taking action and producing results. As a kid playing soldiers with boys on my block, I strove to be the General, giving orders and leading the imaginary charge. Years later, as a young adult musician, this same attitude affected my relationship with my bandmates because I was always focused on the next accomplishment, such as getting our songs heard on the radio. Meanwhile, my bandmates just wanted to celebrate our experience and reflect on our musical journey together. My drive to action–though valid and normal–created tension and interfered with our connection as a group.

A January 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review titled “A Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” explores aspirational business culture and our desire to create results. According to the article, “Results is characterized by achievement and winning. Work environments are outcome-oriented and merit-based places where people aspire to achieve top performance. Employees are united by a drive for capability and success; leaders emphasize goal accomplishment.”  

Action is the what. What do I accomplish with my work? What does my team accomplish? What does my organization accomplish?

As an adult in the workforce, I am proud to have a solid work ethic built on a strong desire to complete short- and long-term goals with a high degree of efficiency and quality. Yet when I engage only the action side of my being, I miss cues and communicate in ways that are not always generative or inclusive. For instance, once in a while I will send professional text messages that barely meet the base standards of “professional” because I use voice dictation and forgo spell-check to save time. I rationalize that people can and should just “feel my style.”

(I have come to learn that this tendency to assume I will be credited as a “doer” in spite of my spelling or syntax errors is actually an example of unconscious incompetence, which my status as a white male allows me to have. Most men and women of color and white women colleagues say they would never send incoherent texts for fear of losing credibility.)

A recent and poignant example of the unintended harm that can result from over-valuing action instead of reflection is the response from Boeing to the tragic and fatal crashes of two 737 MAX planes. Following the tragedies, Boeing was quick to talk about solutions and a little slower to acknowledge the scale and impact that these losses represent to the families of the deceased. Action-orientation makes sense from a cold and clinical business perspective, though publicly reflecting on the impact of these tragedies at an emotional level might have provided much-needed comfort for many.

If action is the what, reflection is the why. Sustainable long-term market companies and leaders understand that results are best achieved by also focusing on the why. Why do we (the company) exist? Why do we matter? Why should someone work here?  

By asking why, we can drive innovation through collaboration in an informed workplace culture that values reflection as an important precursor to action. For example, the LEGO group is now running entirely on renewable energy and producing their toy pieces from sustainable ingredients. Their CEO explained, “We see children as our role models and as we take action in reducing our environmental impact as a company, we will also continue to work to inspire children around the world by engaging them in environmental and social issues.”  

That’s inclusive reflection for long-term action!   

We invite you to practice seeing action and reflection as opposite sides of the same coin. Each has its place, and over-reliance on one versus the other can create blind spots. The next time you want to get right into the swing of things, first take a pause and ask yourself, “How can I do and be at the same time?”