Why do some people from diverse backgrounds appear to lack confidence in the workplace? In most Australian workplaces, strong interpersonal communication skills, motivation, and initiative are highly regarded attributes. However, some people with East Asian backgrounds who are brought up in families that value humility, conformity and interpersonal harmony find Australian workplaces challenging.
Unfortunately, unless they are able to flex their work style, they are perceived as not having these skills and therefore are sometimes judged negatively, despite being very capable and competent.
Family dynamics influence work behaviours
In my new book, Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations, I interviewed a now successful female business leader, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s parents were from Hong Kong and the biggest challenge she overcame at the start of her career was her fear of expressing her point of view to people who were older than her. She expressed concern that if she said something different, it would be disrespectful to her more senior colleagues, as in many Asian families, filial piety or respecting one’s parents and ancestors is a core family value.
Sadly, some Asian-Australians are perceived by others as lacking assertiveness and, therefore, leadership potential. As a result, they believe they hit a ‘bamboo ceiling’ at work – where they feel excluded from leadership positions.
The numbers tell the story.
In 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission estimated that Asian-Australian leaders held approximately 3 per cent of leadership positions despite making up approximately 15 per cent of the Australian population.
At a time when Australia has record unemployment numbers and employers are looking for talent from overseas, more must be done by employers to develop the talent they have to reach their full potential.
To do this, they must create more inclusive workplaces where people feel that they belong, which allows their talent to grow.
What can employers or HR managers do?
Leaders play an increasingly important role as the war for talent continues. In contrast, some employees are resigning silently. Based on my research and experience, these are some of my tips on what leaders can do to help people from diverse backgrounds to flourish:
1. Exercise emotional intelligence. This requires skills such as empathy, self-awareness, adaptability, as well as the ability to manage stress.
2. Create environments of psychological safety. These are ones where people are comfortable expressing and being themselves and aren’t embarrassed, ashamed or punished for their questions. This is especially important at a time when employees want to be able to bring their whole selves to work.
3. Sponsor diverse talent. Access to sponsorship is vital to supporting aspiring culturally diverse leaders to progress in their careers. These relationships provide them with career and emotional support and encourage them to take interpersonal risks without fear or threat.
What can aspiring leaders do?
Based on the lessons I learned from Asian-Australian leaders who smashed the bamboo ceiling, here are four tips on what aspiring leaders can do to build their confidence in the workplace:
1. Experiment with new things – Be open to experimenting with new things that help you build your confidence, even if it feels uncomfortable.
One way to do this is to join a Toastmasters club to improve your ‘elevator’ pitch and comfort level so you can speak more confidently.
2. Flex your style – Recognise that communication skills become more critical in the workplace as you become more senior. Employers will expect you to have a point of view and be able to express them to others, no matter how junior you may be.
Elizabeth learned to flex her style to become more assertive and to be able to speak up more, as her work environment wasn’t going to flex for her.
3. Build relationships with others. Find sponsors and mentors to help you, who become your personal ‘advisory board’ who you can tap into for advice, support and a helping hand to succeed.
Sponsors, being people who believe in you and are willing to advocate for you, are the most important of these relationships. These people will have the most significant influence on your career success.
Finally, look out for people who are not like you. US research has found that people with ethnic backgrounds are more likely to emerge as leaders if they bonded with people who are not like them.
4. Obtain feedback from others. Holding a mirror to yourself will help you recognise your strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots that you may not see and help you to become more self aware.
Consider obtaining 360-degree feedback from the people you work with and your family and friends.
Karen Loon is the author of Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations.
First published by HR Leader on 20 September 2022.