Wearing the Mask: Working in the Dominant Culture

By: Lawrence James, Jr.

For Hollywood screenwriters, fish out of water is shorthand for a script about a person who is suddenly thrust into a situation or culture that is foreign to them. The plot revolves around the initial confusion experienced by the main character, the discovery and eventual understanding of the new world around him/her, and the eventual acceptance and even acquiescence to it. These stories are often played for laughs, usually at the expense of the protagonist. However, in the business world, a lack of understanding and insight can have dire consequences for the careers of those who do not comprehend the rules.

For many executives working in the majority culture business environment (MCBE)—which due to its composition (Anglo, male, heterosexual) does not naturally align with their personal authentic selves, fitting in is not funny. It is a career necessity.

Fitting in requires a daily, conscious effort to sustain a mask that hides a natural persona that includes behaviors these executives believe may be detrimental to their careers. The stress involved in this constant moment-to-moment filtering can create enormous energy demands over and above those needed for everyday business interactions by their culturally mainstream colleagues.

Because we are more comfortable as a society talking about thought diversity than specifics like race, gender, sexual orientation, or geographic origin, candid discussions around the development of minority executives and its implications for the organization are rare.

The Business Persona
In a soon-to-be-published study, RHR International explores the developmental challenges experienced by African-American executives working in the MCBE.

Brought up by parents who personally experienced segregation, many African-Americans currently in the executive ranks were taught not to rock the boat or make waves. They were often cautioned that standing out too much can be dangerous. Unfortunately, this line of thinking has probably been reinforced by examples of prejudice, large and small, that have occurred in the daily lives of the African-American executives, both inside and outside of work.

Used by minorities as a survival technique for centuries, the mask has come into the corporate world as the business persona. It consists of a second set of behaviors adopted for use while immersed in the MCBE in an effort to get along and be accepted. For many African-American executives, it has become reflexive. For example, most mid-level executives will amplify their personal filters when speaking casually to the CEO or board chair at a social function, especially if alcohol is being consumed (at least they should). An astute individual in this setting will be aware that he/she is on stage. An internal alert is sounded and the shields go up. Our conversations with African-American executives indicate that, in business settings, their shields are always up and always at full power.

While it serves a very real purpose, the business persona can be detrimental to an individual’s professional development. It means that African-American executives may have difficulty cultivating on their own the elements of success that are essential for the advancement of their career. These include risk-taking, networking, mentoring, and developing political savvy. Even if they are aware of the value of these behaviors, the daily drain of energy required to maintain the mask may leave them too depleted by the end of the day to pursue them.

Development Implications
An example from our study shows the direct implications of our findings on the executive development process. A phenomenon in our data set revealed that approximately 75% of study participants had an early exposure to the majority culture. This occurs through living conditions (neighbors), educational institutions (grade or high school), or specialty programs (INROADS). Exposure to and knowledge of majority culture norms early in life appears to be an enabling factor for later success in the MCBE (diminished need for the business persona).

If true, the implications of early exposure for development may include the need to assess the African-American executive for it, development of formal or informal plans to address it, discussion of the potential impact on the executive’s career trajectory, and a deep dive into his/her culture and education background to mitigate the lack of exposure. It would be essential to create an environment for frank discussions about cultural variances, and an outside consultant may be needed to act as a thought partner and confidante.

When the Mask Slips
Ironically, when the mask slips, usually due to extreme stress or fatigue, the African-American executive may become more authentic, leading to behaviors that seem out of place or unusual to their colleagues. While somewhat stereotypical, Black culture, as a rule, can be highly demonstrative. As the energy usually held in reserve for the mask wanes, African-American executives may become more boisterous and passionate, evidenced by the increased use of body language and hand gestures to make their point. This display can have significant repercussions, freaking out colleagues who do not normally associate these types of behaviors with this individual. This can lead them to overreact or misinterpret their actions, see the occurrence as an “Angry Black Man” or “Angry Black Woman” episode, and rush off to HR to initiate a conflict-resolution intervention.

Passion is not necessarily anger. According to conversations with study participants, these executives are decidedly not angry. In most cases, they are fully present and totally absorbed in the moment, to the detriment of their usual business persona, but to the benefit of their personal authenticity. My advice, if this should occur with a colleague of yours, is to listen carefully, for it is when we are allowed to be truly authentic that we maximize our organizational impact and contribute fully to the bottom line.


Our insights and thinking, direct to your inbox.