On Bamboo Ceilings (Part 2)

On Bamboo Ceilings (Part 2)

July 18, 2022
An Overview:

Things I wish I’d known earlier in my career about being Asian in America.

"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

This is the second installment of a piece I began writing last week on the challenges that Asian professionals face in corporate America, which aimed to offer a series of reframes to help folks work with, rather than against, our cultural defaults in an authentic way. Since putting that piece out into the world, I’ve had a number of generative conversations with friends and readers who’ve shared stories and “ah-ha” moments from their own journeys. One outcome of these conversations has been my realization that writing this blog has been one more step in my journey of working through my own enduring aversion to speaking up and self-assertion. It may or may not surprise you to learn that I continue to suffer a massive vulnerability hangover right after hitting the “publish” button on each and every one of these pieces, and I haven’t completely shaken off the nagging suspicion that I’m courting disaster simply by daring to make my thoughts public. As Marshall McLuhan might say, when it comes to this blog “the medium is the message.” All of this is to say: thank you for reading, for engaging, for holding and witnessing — it means more to me than you know.

"How do you overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning that makes advocating for yourself at work feel like courting disaster — like an overgrown tree asking to be cut down by the wind?"

#3: Being "easy to work with" is not the asset you think it is.

Growing up Chinese in Singapore, it often seemed to me and my peers that one of the worst social transgressions any of us could commit was to “stand out” in any way. The specific reasons for which one might “stand out” didn’t particularly matter  — it was considered just as unseemly to publicize one’s virtues as it was to achieve notoriety for one’s faults. Indeed, the Chinese proverb “木秀于林, 风必摧之” attributed to writer and politician Li Kang of the Three Kingdoms period literally reminds us that it is the tree that grows tallest that most risks being toppled by the wind. Of course, the prohibition against “standing out” didn’t preclude us from being ambitious. But it did mean that we understood the path to power and influence as requiring the maintenance of an artful optical illusion in which one demonstrated competence while drawing as little attention to oneself as possible. Consider, for instance, the recently named successor to Singapore’s Prime Minister — often described in the press as “unassuming” and “extremely easy to work with,” he had, until he was tapped for role, repeatedly denied having any designs on the prime ministership, and opened his first press conference as heir apparent by stating that he had “never hankered for post, position, or power.”

If you grew up in a culture similar to the one I describe, then it’s likely that you too have honed to perfection this disappearing act. By the time I arrived in the U.S. at the age of 21, it had become a point of pride for me to be “easy to work with” — that is, to take up as little space as possible with my wants or ambitions because I truly believed that only a maximum of competence and a minimum of visibility would pave the way for my success. Imagine my surprise when the feedback I received from the powers-that-be was that while I was indeed “easy to work with,” no one really knew what to do with me, much less recommend me for advancement opportunities, because I had never made clear what I wanted for my career. It wasn’t only that I was mistaken in believing that being small would help me succeed, but also that it felt viscerally dangerous for me to call attention to myself by, say, advocating for my own professional development or asserting the value of my own strengths. I still recall vividly how having to write “I” statements in the paperwork for my performance reviews gave me a pit in my stomach as a first-year associate, as well as the awkward passive sentences I used as substitutes, which obviously did me no favors.

How do you overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning that makes advocating for yourself at work feel like courting disaster — like an overgrown tree asking to be cut down by the wind? The reframe that’s worked for me is realizing that whatever we may feel we risk by taking up space with our ambitions and wants, we risk all the more by making ourselves small. In a corporate culture where everything is on the surface and everyone’s strengths and designs on career advancement are on full technicolor display, an individual’s absence of visible ambition is more likely to be experienced by others as apathy (at best) or hypocrisy and dissembling (at worst) than as humility. In other words, when transposed to the context of corporate America, the cultural scripts that we’ve internalized to keep us safe from social censure are precisely the ones that inspire in others the greatest misgivings about us. You don’t have to wait until it feels safe to advocate for yourself professionally or stake a claim to the advancement you want, because that moment is not going to come any time soon. You just have to remember that by remaining small, it’s likely you’ve already provoked the professional extinction you were hoping to avoid in the first place. Put simply, your smallness will not save you — so grow tall, my friends.

#4: You can take control of how others tell your story.

By now, it is common knowledge that even individuals with egalitarian beliefs are apt to use unconsciously gendered language in performance reviews to the detriment of their female colleagues. Indeed, one of the first training sessions I attended at McKinsey was a workshop on how to avoid exactly this genre of unconscious bias, where the same behaviors that earn men praise for “taking charge” and “having initiative” get labeled “abrasiveness” and “aggression” when exhibited by women. To my knowledge, there has not been any systematic research into a similar phenomenon that applies to Asian professionals. At the time, I didn’t remark on the absence of any training on unconscious racial bias when it came to colleagues of my ethnic and cultural origin. At any rate, I figured that the stereotypes associated with employees who looked like me tended to be positive (at least at the entry level — but more on this shortly).

Roughly two years into my time as an associate, however, I began to observe a subtle pattern forming in the feedback that I was receiving. It took me a while to notice because it sounded very much like praise — for my problem-solving skills, for my conscientiousness, for the high quality of my work, and so forth. It didn’t occur to me that I might be headed for a problem until I discerned the complete absence of any references to the skills that actually get associates promoted to manager, like leadership and relationship building. It wasn’t that I wasn’t taking every opportunity to demonstrate these skills, but that everyone’s attention was trained elsewhere (albeit on what they considered my strengths). This left me in a quandary: how was I supposed to respond to feedback that wasn’t serving me without upsetting those who thought they were praising me? There was also no small amount of doubt and self-minimization on my part, as surely “receiving the wrong kind of praise” can’t count as a real problem in a world where women and other minorities have to deal with actual negative bias?

After months of faffing about, the devastatingly simple solution came to me in a moment of uncharacteristic boldness. On the receiving end once again of feedback from a partner that I was a “problem-solving whiz” who could “do anything with numbers,” I thanked him and pointed out that (a) while he may believe he was paying me a compliment, he would in fact be doing me a disservice if he repeated those words to a review committee who would simply take those strengths as table stakes for someone of my background, and (b) I wondered if he had anything to say about my leadership and relationship building skills? I’m not sure what possessed me to be so bold, and I absolutely wished in that moment that the ground would open up and swallow me whole — but I will also never forget the look on his face when I said that, or the way he responded after. To his credit, he took no offense but genuinely welcomed my feedback on how I experienced the feedback he was giving me — which, I suspect, is how most people leaders who don’t have any intention of being biased would respond. He not only did have positive feedback to provide on my leadership and relationship-building skills, but also offered to work with me in the coming weeks to make sure that I would have enough opportunities to demonstrate them in ways he could relay to the review committee.

My promotion to manager came just 2 - 3 months later, but I took away from this moment a reframe to last a lifetime: Although workplace feedback may often feel like a judgment on your qualities handed down to you from “on high,” it is really nothing more than the sum of the stories that people tell about you. It may take a little boldness and some gumption, but you don’t have to acquiesce to being the object of the feedback you receive, like a character in a story told by others in a foreign language — you can take control of the narrative and teach others how you want your story to be told.

#5: It's not personal, but prove them wrong anyway.

Midway through my tenure as a manager, which is right around the time where consultants start to get sized up for their propensity to succeed as future partners of the Firm, I began to receive a peculiar genre of feedback that went something like this (and I paraphrase): “You are very credible with clients and are an excellent communicator, especially when it pertains to the work you’re doing. However, we would like to see evidence that you can build relationships with clients that extend beyond the day-to-day.” When I asked the powers-that-be for more specificity as to what sort of behaviors I was being asked to perform, the responses that I got amounted to something like “maybe take your clients out for coffee” and “talk to them about something other than the work you’re doing.”

I sat on that feedback for over an entire year without doing much of anything about it, which is an eternity in McKinsey time. Part of my hesitation had to do with the sheer idiocy of the feedback I was receiving (I apologize, there really is no other way to say it). Were the powers-that-be really trying to tell me that I was a credible client counselor and communicator but they needed to know whether I knew how to relate to people outside of work? Do they not think that I have friends? Do they think that outside of work I’m a troll who lives under a bridge? I kept trying to find a way to work with the feedback productively, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being asked to prove that I could “make friends and not alienate people” (to paraphrase Dale Carnegie). It’s not that I disagreed that “making friends” was an important part of the job or that I actually doubted my ability to do so — but that I couldn’t get over the complete inanity of being asked to prove that I could. It was like being asked to retrace my steps and prove that I had the social developmental skills of a four year old before I would be considered worthy of the partnership.

After over a year of unhelpful fuming about this feedback, I finally decided it was time to do something about it. Towards the end of my time as a manager, I was staffed on an engagement where an urgent need came up that required consultants to travel to the client site. Since we were in the middle of a pandemic, no one wanted to make the trip — sensing an opportunity, I volunteered as tribute. As part of this trip, I made sure to get coffee and dinners scheduled with senior clients, during which I (naturally) talked about topics other than work. Upon my return, I made sure to relay the effect of these conversations and what I had learned from them to multiple people I could be sure would attest to the fact. By my next review cycle, I was being celebrated for my “sophisticated” client influencing skills and well on my way to being promoted to associate partner, and we never spoke of that absurd piece of feedback again.

I will never be able to prove that the feedback was rooted in a racial stereotype, so I leave it to you to decide whether a white, male mid-career consultant from the American Midwest would’ve been given the same feedback. What I will say is that for most of my 5 years at McKinsey, there was only one male partner who looked like me in the Bay Area office, a complex of 1,000+ consultants and 100+ partners in a region with the highest relative population of Asian / Asian-Americans in the continental U.S. At any rate, none of this has any bearing on the final reframe I offer you, which is that if you find yourself in a similar situation, the best thing you can do is to refuse to take it personally, and find the most efficient, timely way to prove them wrong anyway. It will mean that you will have to work twice as hard to prove half as much, and that this will sometimes feel personally offensive to you — but there are scant alternatives (at least for the moment). It is not lost on me that this reframe, like all of the ones that come before, involve no small amount of effort on the part of Asian professionals to work within the constraints of the “bamboo ceiling,” while for the most part leaving those barriers intact. If you find yourself in a situation similar to the one I describe, I am not saying that you shouldn’t get angry (you absolutely should!) or demand that your employers do better (ditto!), but I am saying that even as we continue the necessary labor of provoking wholesale, systemic change, that change is going to take time —  andyour career cannot wait. Until that long-awaited change comes, I hope you will find in these words something to help you stay in the fight.

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog post helpful, sign up below to get updates straight in your inbox. If you’re intrigued by these ideas and would like help putting them in action in your own career, use the Calendly widget at the bottom right of the window to get in touch with me.

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