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Asian Americans suffer from a massive culture gap.
Hey everyone, thank you for so warmly receiving my first newsletter last week! Your support motivates me to go deeper and push harder to give you the insights you need to lead.
And, if you’re an ally, I’m glad you’re here!
I’ve been delighted that so many allies have signed up—and I’ve changed the newsletter title from Asian American Leaders to Asian Americans & Allies. Better! By sharing with you the challenges facing America’s fastest-growing racial group, I hope this newsletter equips you to be a better ally and more capable leader.
Together, let’s build inclusion for Asian Americans and all people.
Last week, I shared with you what is the Asian American Glass Ceiling, aka Bamboo Ceiling. Asians are America’s most educated group and the most hired group. Once hired, though, we face the least equitable outcomes of any racial group. We’re 7% of the population, 12% of the workforce but only 1.5% of Fortune 500 corporate officers.
This is a very important question, because if we don’t know why a problem exists, we can’t fix it. There are two reasons: Culture gap and unconscious bias. Today, let’s address the culture gap.
What are Asians Americans doing now to try succeed?
If you’re Asian American, you’ve probably been trained to believe that success comes from two things beginning with the letters H-A-R. Harvard and Hard Work. I call it the Asian Success Doctrine.
But does this doctrine actually work? 哈佛文凭等于能在美国成功吗?
What if this Asian Success Doctrine were not true at all? 😳
What if instead, success is based on a totally different set of factors? 😨
And our own focus on education and hard work is part of what’s getting in our way? 🥶
Let’s test it. If success truly did result from Harvard and Hard Work, then logic dictates we should be able to look across the tops of America’s most powerful companies, and see a whole bunch of Ivy Leaguers.
Well, I looked up who’s running America’s biggest companies. Here they are:
One person attended an Ivy League school, the newest person on this list, Amazon’s new CEO Andy Jassy.
But these other schools – Texas A&M… Nebraska… Auburn ?
If you attended one of those, and Zhang Ayi started bragging about her daughter getting into Stanford, your mom would be like, “Lai lai lai, have something more to eat!”
In fact, the Harvard and Hard Work doctrine actually works better in much of Asia, where the culture is “high power distance.”
Power-distance is a framework sociologists use to measure the extent to which power differences in a society or organization are accepted by less powerful members. Most Asian countries are “high power distance,” while most Western countries are “low power distance.”
These opposing worldviews fundamentally inform how people relate to one another, and how organizations are structured.
In the high power distance societies of Asia, hierarchy is accepted as the natural order, and power flows from authority.
China and many Asian societies prize social order and harmony. Everyone knows their place. Kids are brought up to keep quiet and obey their elders. There, academic degrees lead to lifelong high status, so many kids’ lives are grueling and focused on studies and activities aimed at getting into an elite school.
All this prepares them for Asian workplaces, which are strictly hierarchical, and focused on tasks instead of people:
➢ Leaders are revered, display strength, and avoid signs of weakness.
➢ Decision-making is top-down. Managers make decisions and delegate tasks.
➢ Subordinates have little voice in decision-making.
➢ Managers and subordinates lack emotional connection and rarely socialize.
➢ Subordinates have little contact with superiors above their manager.
Bottom line, in workplaces across Asia, the way to succeed is: get into the best possible college, then work super hard, be modest, and keep your boss happy.
To a Westerner, all this may feel rather sterile. Plenty of Western employees who work for Asian bosses complain of being micro-managed.
But there’s a huge upside to this Asian model: Shit. Gets. Done.
Since the 1980s, China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty. Airports, high-speed rail and roads pop up seemingly overnight. Chinese companies are incredibly fast and innovative.
When I hang out with foreign expat friends in Beijing, talk often turns to how each year working in China is like 5 years working in the States. The sheer pace of work there is intoxicating. People work extremely hard and in unison. There’s little need to cajole, or influence, or deal with pesky worker demands. (Unless, of course, the pressure builds up such that the people revolt.)
In the low power distance societies of the West, equity is expected, and power flows through influence.
In the United States and across the West, the dominant values are freedom and equality. Starting in pre-school, kids are taught to “show and tell.” They’re encouraged to play, and to learn to make friends and be a friend.
All this prepares them for Western workplaces, which are focused on people instead of tasks:
➢ Leaders prize authenticity and emotional connection with employees.
➢ Decision-making is highly distributed, involving committees and group brainstorms.
➢ Meetings may involve people at 3 or more levels in the hierarchy.
➢ Employees are expected to assert their ideas, even if they differ from their manager’s.
➢ To be promoted, one must build relationships with people at all levels, not just with the boss.
All this is great for employee empowerment and engagement. The trade-off, of course, is that organizations are messier and move slower. Decisions involve multiple people and workers expect to have their needs met.
The pandemic and shifting demographics are rapidly forcing American companies to become even more low power distanced. After all, the #greatresignation is all about people demanding that they, not tasks, be at the center of corporate decision-making.
So, the culture gap between how many Asians behave and how Westerners behave is massive, and it continues to grow.
But here in America, all this raises a confusing question:
Why do many Asian Americans still behave the Asian way? Aren’t we Americans, after all?
The answer to this is buried in an April 2021 report by Pew Research that nearly made me fall out of my chair when I first saw it: 17% of all American adults were born in another country, but 71% of Asian American adults were born in another country.
Did you catch that?
17% of all American adults were born in another country.
71% of Asian American adults were born in another country.
Isn't that amazing?
So, the reason why Asian American adults behave in the ways of the old country is that ¾ of us are from the old country! Atop the culture gap, add a language gap. It’s actually really hard to live and work in a language not your own.
And, most Asian Americans who were born here, like me, are the kids of those immigrants. So, even if we speak perfect English, the ways of the old country are still deeply embedded.
That’s how we were brought up.
The good news is, now that we understand this culture gap, we can fix it.
The Harvard and Hard Work doctrine is a dangerous fallacy for our community.
Here’s the bottom line on Ivy League degrees:
In America, an Ivy League degree helps you most before you hit age 30, when you're looking for that first job out of college or graduate school. At that point, it can be a huge plus indeed. Some of the most prestigious law, banking and management-consulting firms recruit almost exclusively from the most elite schools.
But, but, but...
Because of the low-power nature of American organizations, to become a leader, you must connect, not just with your boss, but with people at all different levels, both inside and outside your company.
To make Partner at your prestigious firm, you must connect with clients and convince them to give you business.
The fancy alumni network that you’ll get with your Ivy League degree will be useless if you can't connect with your fellow alumni.
Minus the ability to connect, you’ll end up under the Asian American Glass Ceiling, just another of America’s best-educated, hardest-working worker bees.
The problem for us is….
Growing up, while the other kids are playing and learning to be a friend and to make friends, we're isolated, working so hard, to get the perfect test scores, and to win the math competitions... to get into Harvard.
And now we see why the Harvard and Hard Work doctrine is such a dangerous fallacy for our community. Not only does it seduce families into investing massive amounts of time, money and energy to try for those Ivy League degrees, but even worse, it prevents us from developing the very connection skills we need to put all that education to use and lead.
Our parents just wanted to prepare us as best they could for a world they saw as confusing and sometimes racist. They did the best they could with the information that they had.
The good news is, now we have better information.
Despite that he was one of Asia’s best and brightest, recruited all the way from Taiwan to MIT with a full-ride graduate scholarship, his career was doomed because once here, he continued to play by the rules for success in Asia.
I often wonder how far he could have soared if only someone at work had reached out, and mentored him, and showed him the unwritten rules of the game here in the States.
If you're an ally...
This holiday season, how about reaching out to mentor or sponsor an Asian American? Behind that quiet exterior may be someone who is fascinating, thoughtful, and deep. Not only could you earn yourself a great new friend, you’d be developing your own leadership skills, since the quickest way to develop empathy is to really get to know someone from another culture.
I’m eager to learn from you! What experiences and insights do you have of the culture gap faced by Asian Americans? Please share in comments below.
In my next newsletter, I’ll tackle the fascinating subject of unconscious bias.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful week!
If you feel more people would benefit from this newsletter, please share it with your community. Thank you so much.
For instant access to my free 3-part video mini-course, “How to Smash the Asian American Glass Ceiling,” click here.
To meet me to discuss how we at JOYOUS can help you recruit outstanding Asian American leaders, and onboard your new Asian American leaders, click here.
Joy Chen 陈愉 is the world-renowned executive recruiter, career coach and speaker whom the Wall Street Journal pronounced a "Lean-in Guru" and the Los Angeles Times refers to simply as "The Networker." She is the Founder and CEO of JOYOUS, a recruiting, onboarding and career development firm for Asian American professionals. Joy previously served as a Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. Visit her at getjoyous.net.