Noah Prince, Senior Consultant

Note: This column is part one of a six-part series on the 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.

Noted Jamaican-born political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur and orator Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

I love this quote. As a white man of Polish and Jewish ancestry, it reminds me that we have much to learn by reflecting on and learning from the past, our past. Reflection and remembering are important parts of Jewish culture.

Another famous proverb from the Talmud reminds us that gratitude is also worthy of always remembering: “He that gives should not remember, he that receives should never forget.” The point is, we can learn a lot about our lives by examining and remembering what has happened. Yet, the societal norm I grew up learning was laser-focused on the future. It taught me that I needed to set goals for the future if I hoped to be successful. With the exception of the counsel I received from my family and a few noteworthy teachers, I received very few messages that encouraged me to think about or learn from the past, or for that matter, pay a whole lot of attention to the present.

This is a trait of US white male culture – time is linear and future-focused. Employees and managers who focus on the future are rewarded and able to advance their careers in linear-time business culture norms. Our collective ability as men AND women in the US to embody this trait in our work has undoubtedly helped to make the US enormously successful in a variety of ways. It implies a sense of urgency, looking ever-forward and planning the next step. Accountability, stability and taking action are some of the many ways that a future-focused and linear sense of time has positively impacted our culture. In many ways, a pioneering spirit of proactiveness produces great results in our culture.

Marcus Garvey must have experienced this part of our culture, too, for he also wrote, “Ambition is the desire to go forward and improve one’s condition…. To want that which is worthwhile and strive for it. To go on without looking back, reaching to that which gives satisfaction.”

For me, the trait has also been a culprit in my repeated mistakes for the very same reasons, mostly because I didn’t take the time to stop and think about what I had learned from some particularly painful life lessons. I just forged ahead, the past be damned! Like attributes of any culture, a strength overused can become a weakness as well. In the business world, seeing time as linear and future-focused results in a lot of interactions with other people that feel transactional as opposed to transformational, adding to the sense of being in a “rat race” at times. Time becomes over-used as a measure of productivity instead of being seen as a framework for measuring the depth and quality of our professional and personal relationships.  

Some examples of how a future-focused concept of time impacts our partnerships and workplace culture include:

  • The concept of “burning or wasting daylight” helped motivate our ancestors to get food in the larder before winter. It enabled our nation to mobilize industry to support the World War II allied effort in the fight against Nazism and Fascism. Yet, poorly applied today, moving fast can result in a lot of busy work in organizations. We hear “first to market” not “best to market,” but isn’t best to market just as important?
  • The insider US business culture norms involving time can result in unconsciously/consciously projecting our time bias onto clients, employees and business partners in other countries/cultures.  Author Bhaskar Pant, in his HBR article Different Cultures see Deadlines Differently, shares an example: “Don’t assume digital communication breaks through cultural barriers. Let’s say you email someone in Japan and expect a quick response to a simple question…but then you don’t hear from them until the next day or days later. Why might this be? Well, Japan’s business culture prizes group consensus. The person you emailed may be consulting their team members and superiors before giving you an answer. So, they are being thoughtful and respectful, rather than uncaring, but this might not come across over email.”  
  • Differences in perceptions of cultural norms around time can create barriers and friction in diverse workplace partnerships within the US as well.  For example, it’s not hard to imagine a real scenario where a well-meaning white boss might believe that racism was a series of horrible acts committed a long time ago, ending with the civil rights movement, while a black member of their team grew up experiencing some of the same threats and dangers connected to slavery and feels those racial dynamics on a systemic level. We witnessed a very similar scenario in early February 2019, when TV images revealed white male leaders wearing black face 30 years ago during their college fraternity days. Their response was and continues to be, “That was a long time ago.” While other Virginia citizens see the transgressions as more than bad taste or poor judgment, it’s a continuation of the minimization that men and women of color have lived with since childhood. This dynamic happens more than most whites know, resulting in people talking past each other and outsider group members feeling even more marginalized and invalidated.  

The US white male cultural trait, Time is Linear and Future-Focused, is yet another paradox. Is being goal- and future-focused good for getting results? Absolutely! Does reflection and slowing down in order to consider what we learned from the past (while being mindful of the present) help us make better decisions? Yes! Both are true.

Perhaps the real opportunity for leaders is to determine:  

  • When do we need to set goals and drive for results and…
  • When do we need to remember what has happened and learn from experience?

And, of course, when do we do both?