In the communities we build, we tend to hold a shared understanding of the general characteristics that make someone a successful member of the group. At work, for example, we often praise self-starters and revere those who “do it all.”
While we need team members who are well-organized and strong contributors, the value we place on some characteristics over others often becomes internalized, resulting in the collective creation, replication, and enforcement of those characteristics as the standard of what it means to be successful and professional in the workplace.
Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, the characteristics we value and maintain as the norms of our society are deeply rooted in our understanding of race, ability, class, gender, and sexuality. And their impacts are complex and collectively harmful — not only for those who don’t align with this idea of professionalism, but for those who do.
Many of the characteristics of professionalism we uphold today are rooted in a culture that systemically centers whiteness, and result in an environment that makes it difficult for other cultural norms to be equally recognized and valued. We collectively reinforce these characteristics and then become collectively (and uniquely) harmed by them by maintaining a culture that only rewards those who adapt and conform.
If we’re committed to building diverse and multicultural workplaces that equitably develop each member, it’s important to understand where the characteristics of white dominant culture express themselves within the experience of professionalism, and ask ourselves: Do we really want to align our values with definitions that weren’t originally defined by us or for us?
There are dozens of characteristics of white dominant culture that are valued as expressions of professionalism. These social constructions are complex, but in identifying and understanding them we can work towards creating truly inclusive and equitable environments that are collectively beneficial.
Here are two that show up frequently in today’s workplaces, and some questions to consider about how they color our approach to successful community-building and deter us from reaching shared goals.
Many of us know the feeling of staying up at night, overanalyzing a mistake, stomach churning with guilt and shame around something we failed to do correctly. Maybe, to get past the feeling of dread, our instincts kick in and we tuck those feelings away, putting the mistake neatly in the past.
It may also feel instinctive to more freely offer criticism or feedback around a mistake made by a colleague than to speak our appreciation or praise.
“Instinct” is the key word here.
While it may feel instinctive to bury our own feelings of regret or jump to calling out someone else for a misstep, this is a common response to the conditioning we experience around perfectionism.
In environments where perfectionism is highly valued, we’re more likely to internalize our mistakes and see them as a reflection of who we are. Doing something wrong gets equated with being wrong. But mistakes are a natural symptom of being human! When we stop ourselves from seeing mistakes as an organic — and often beneficial — part of any process, and bypass reflection and learning, we’re doing a great disservice to ourselves and to our teams. Opportunities for growth and understanding get buried under shame and defensiveness.
In the workplace, this can translate to devaluing our colleagues and even stunting our own professional progress.
When we fold race, ability, class, gender, and sexuality into this, we can see how our assumed definitions of success and professionalism are not equitable, and in fact, inadvertently perpetuate systems of inequality in our workplaces.
How do leaders reinforce perfectionism? Do we offer recognition equitably across the organization, or do some team members receive more credit than others regardless of the work done? When we provide feedback, do we approach it as a learning opportunity? Do our employees feel comfortable asking questions, or are we stunting growth and development by reinforcing the ideal that we must be excellent without exception?
If you’ve ever heard yourself or others say, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” you’ve met individualism.
In the workplace, overvaluing individualism can create a competitive and isolated work environment. Folks may find they get more praise if they accomplish something on their own — which squashes opportunity for collaboration and closes the door on diverse solutions, problem solving, and fresh perspectives (in a word: innovation).
A culture that values individualism is also one that might potentially overlook troubling behavior. If we value individuals who self-manage over those who collaborate well with others, how do we create a culture of accountability? Is everyone on our team receiving credit for their contributions, or just the leaders? Do performance reviews evaluate a person’s ability to cooperate and collectively drive a team’s goals, or do they focus on individual results? Are meetings a place to report updates or are they safe spaces to brainstorm and resolve challenges?
A coded expression of professionalism that upholds perfectionism and individualism in the workplace can result in employees feeling isolated, disengaged, and afraid to ask for help.
This can lead to a multitude of problems — the costliest of which includes failing to retain and develop strong talent.
As we identify the characteristics of white dominant culture valued in the workplace, we can begin to discover how they get embedded in our shared understanding of professionalism. If we can see them as complex social constructions — rather than “just how things are done” — we can collectively do the work to dismantle them.
In doing so, we begin the process of working towards truly intentional equity and inclusion practices that benefit everyone.