Lessons from ‘Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling’: the Myths, the Reality, and What We Can Do About It   

Developing an authentic leadership voice will call you to be intentional about how you will lead. And that’s a skill that can be learned…

Most days, I get a blank stare when I bring up the career advancement dilemma for Asians with people that I meet, but it’s one with which you may be all too familiar.  

The year is 2022, and it’s tempting to think in this time of greater sensitivity to anti-Asian bias that the workplace obstacles we experience have declined. In our experience, however, that’s just not the reality. Stymied by structural bias and a general lack of cultural fluency in the workplace, Asian Americans continue to face real challenges. What is going on, and what can we do about it?

Encapsulating a wide range of issues, the term “bamboo ceiling” refers to a combination of cultural, organizational, and individual factors that impede the career progress of Asian-American talent. At the time I wrote the book on the subject, it was as a primer for a younger version of myself, a guide to understanding the workplace with strategies that my parents couldn’t teach me. 

I’m here to tell you that the bamboo ceiling can be broken—and you can do it without fundamentally changing who you are.  

It’s been almost twenty years since I started tackling these barriers. During that span we have worked to close the gap for thousands of people who may not fit the “mold’ of the so-called typical leader (what is “typical” anyway?) in our organizations. We’ve coached Asians to understand what they bring to the table and created programs to amplify their leadership voice. The goal? To help them take actionable steps to reach their full potential. Informed by the real experiences of professionals with whom we’ve worked, following are a few tips on how to break through.

You need to take building relationships seriously. Think of it as a requirement of your job—even if it’s not in the job description.

On Dealing with Stereotypes

The “model minority” stereotype is an incomplete and false narrative of the Asian American experience. The dutiful, “worker bee” image assigned to Asian Americans can block potential leadership opportunities. If people perceive that all Asians are high achievers, it’s difficult for them to imagine that there are Asians who struggle and that we are not homogeneous. Like all stereotypes, even seemingly “positive” stereotypes can hurt—you can be pigeonholed and sidelined from entering certain areas, not to mention dismissed when opportunities for leadership roles emerge.

It’s important to continue to interrupt the assumptions we make about people. In the meantime, you can deal with workplace stereotypes sometimes by directly addressing the issue, naming your goals, and as needed, learning to practice behaviors without compromising your identity and values.

Dealing with Conflict and Communicating Your Worth

That’s what Sarah Jeong* a marketer in the consumer products company did. Thoughtful and unassuming, she wasn’t naturally adept at dealing with conflict. However, she came to realize it was important to build adaptive skills in certain situations as a leader: when a potentially contentious meeting came up, she made a point of preparing for difficult questions from attendees. We worked together on specific action steps to apply in difficult situations and preparing mentally to engage. So, when the meeting occurred, she was able to stand her ground and navigated the situation with her sharp insight and her quiet strength. Over time, the result was that she was “firm” when it counted without having to think in terms of a complete personality makeover.

Similarly, John Yee*, a middle manager in a global financial services firm, reports on the importance of communicating your worth:

“During my annual performance evaluation, I didn’t receive the rating I expected because I was generally quiet. So, I learned that it’s important to work hard but also be smart about raising awareness of my impact to my team.” John put into practice some of the tools we discussed while engaging regularly with stakeholders outside of his group. 

Additionally, he realized the importance of demonstrating his broader skill set with folks outside of his department.  In this way, he defied the stereotypes that often relegate Asian Americans to a specific type of role just because they seem “suited” to it. When others see the leadership impact you are making on others, they can no longer deny it. “I initiated getting on projects that required collaboration with others. I also looked for opportunities to improve processes and make a broader impact outside of my business group.”

Here are additional tips for using your voice authentically:
  • Let people know what you want to do next. This is true both on the micro level of a given project and the macro level of your career. You can initiate a conversation with your manager well ahead of your performance review.
  • Communicate your project accomplishments and provide updates with your own perspective. Remember that not every contribution you make in a meeting has to be groundbreaking—not everyone else’s is either.
  • Know when to ask questions of your leaders. Does this mean you need to be “loud” from now on? Of course not. It means knowing when to pick your battles during critical junctures of your career trajectory; again, it’s about being behaviorally flexible in situations.
  • Be aware of your attitude if you don’t get the immediate result that you want from others. Acknowledge that you are taking gradual steps to grow. 

On Mentors

Why mentoring as an important concern?

Well, you need to take building relationships seriously. Think of it as a requirement of your job—even if it’s not in the job description. Your goal is to build a network of colleagues inside and outside of your company who understand the true value of your work, and your relationship with a mentor is a critical one to cultivate. 

The research is clear on the benefits of effective mentoring: greater job satisfaction and career mobility as well as lower levels of conflict and stress.

A few pointers to guide you:
  • When you’re the protégé, avoid the two common pitfalls that I’ve seen: — being either too remote or not sharing what’s really going on out of respect for your mentor… 
  • …or being overly dependent on your mentor and looking for guidance on every single matter. Instead, be judicious with your requests for support.  
  • Make your meetings productive by focusing on topics that go beneath the surface. 

While it’s not advisable to discuss uncomfortable subjects with your mentor until you have built up trust, start to delve into meaningful topics for your development that make a difference over time. 

On Getting Ahead

The key to being evaluated as a leader is managing the performance discussion. In fact, you should be sure not to have promotion conversations outside the context of performance. On the other hand, doing the opposite will create alignment on the meaningful metrics that lead to promotion, and will set you up to win.

  • Become really good at your job. That may sound simplistic, but it’s easy to forget. If there are aspects of your job you need to improve, get the training or support you need. If you cultivate excellence in yourself, everything else becomes that much easier.
  • Obtain feedback on an ongoing basis. Don’t wait until the year-end review process to gauge how you’re doing. Solicit feedback as part of your professional practice.
  • Prepare for the performance discussion and ensure expectations are clear on your deliverables. 
  • Finally, if you don’t get that promotion, don’t just “wait until next time.” Be proactive in finding out why—so you can do something about it. 

Being the Change — Tackling the Model Minority Myth

Unfortunately, the model minority myth—the issue at the heart of why I wrote Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling—is alive and well. It is extremely hard to find organizations that seek deep, lasting solutions, not short-term “fixes,” when it comes to recognizing and leveraging the multicultural talent available to them.

Developing an authentic leadership voice will call you to be intentional about how you will lead. And that’s a skill that can be learned—and in fact is being learned, with greater and greater frequency. It’s about maturing as a leader by being able to integrate competing values—both within our organizations and within ourselves—while remaining thoughtful, and results-oriented with a genuine thirst for continuous learning.

And we desperately need community. Make sure you have support, inside and outside of your organization, to bounce back and continue to move forward. I would love to hear what has worked for you and hear your story. Sharing your experience strengthens the greater community. In the meantime, I’ll be cheering for you.  

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

Jane Hyun is a global leadership strategist to Fortune 500 companies who has worked with leaders across five continents. She is the author of the bestselling book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians and co-author of Flex. A trusted coach to executives and first level managers alike, she continues to work tirelessly to close the gap for Asian professionals in the workplace. She has contributed to CNN, CNBC, Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.  She is passionate about helping individuals flourish in their workplaces and communities. She loves exploring new food and gifts for her friends & family, so “Best of Korea” is a source of inspiration! Find her at www.hyunassociates.com 

To reach Jane: jhyun@hyunassociates.com 

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