Study: Asians Perceived To Lack Charisma

Why do we see fewer Asian Americans in senior management positions? In the first study on Asian Americans and perceptions of leadership, researchers found that Asians are seen as having less charisma when compared to their white counterparts — a trait that's often synonymous with leadership in Western societies. Host Michel Martin discusses the findings of this new study with lead author, Thomas Sy, of the University of California, Riverside.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, you may have heard the phrase model minority used to describe Asian-Americans. That's because they are popularly perceived to have strong study and work habits, behave with discipline, and willingly adopt American culture. But that stereotype, favorable as it may seem, is not helpful when it comes to being viewed as leaders.

A new study says that Asian-Americans, when compared with white Americans especially, are thought to be lacking in charisma and thus lacking in leadership ability in business and the board room. And these results may help explain why we see a smaller percentage of Asian-Americans in top management than whites, the researchers say.

To learn more about this study and how the results might be used in real life, we've called the lead author of the study, Thomas Sy. He's an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. And he's with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor THOMAS SY (University of California Riverside): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you to try to explain as simply as you can what was your methodology.

Prof. SY: Sure.

MARTIN: But the basic core question is, is there a stereotype that Asian-Americans are technically competent, but somehow not qualified for the top job?

Prof. SY: That's a fairly accurate statement.

MARTIN: So how did you go around testing that idea?

Prof. SY: Sure, sure. So we provided them with an evaluation of an employee. This description gives fairly basic information. And all participants get the same type of information. The only thing that we varied was race itself. For our Caucasian counterpart, the description of this employee was John Davis. For our Asian counterpart it was Tung-Sheng Wong. In addition to name, we varied it by providing with demographic information. We literally told them: race, colon, Caucasian or Asian. And a third variable, we actually provide them with a picture. So this picture was either a picture of a Caucasian individual or an Asian individual.

MARTIN: So you surveyed business undergraduates because you were interested in future leaders. But you also surveyed groups of people who are currently in positions of responsibility. So what perceptions did they have?

Prof. SY: The first key point is that Asian-Americans, they are perceived as less ideal leaders than Caucasian-Americans. The second question our research answered was, why do people have that perception? And what we found is essentially race. For Asian-Americans, it activated a competent leader prototype. Whereas for a Caucasian, it activated what some people term a charismatic leadership prototype.

And what we know from decades of research is that when it comes to top-level management, the ideal leader is someone who's actually charismatic, who's masculine, who's in control of his or her destiny. Whereas for midlevel managers, the perception is more in line with the competent leader prototype. So the idea is that if Asians are perceived as competent, they might be viewed as more in line with midlevel and lower level management positions.

MARTIN: So they're great number two, not going to be number one.

Prof. SY: That's right. Yeah.

MARTIN: Did you ask about other ethnic groups, perceptions of other ethnic groups? 'Cause the question one would have is, is the argument that people felt that way just about Asians? Or they felt that way about anybody who wasn't white?

Prof. SY: We didn't do that in this study. However, in 2008, a colleague of mine conducted a study where she compared African-Americans to Caucasian-Americans. And they found a very similar trend.

MARTIN: Tell me what reaction you've gotten to the survey so far.

Prof. SY: I've received both invitations from other scientists and researchers to come and speak with them, help with them with their research. And maybe more importantly, we've gotten reactions from particularly Asian groups in industry who were interested in having us come and share some of the knowledge and insights with them. What's been somewhat surprisingly, if I would say, is the lack of response from the companies themselves who are interested in diversity practice and things like that. I hate to say it, but I haven't had much interest from these organizations.

MARTIN: Hmm. What do you think that means?

Prof. SY: Many of these corporations do not understand that there is an issue. Many of these corporations, rightfully so, understand the issues with other minority groups because of the historical context in the U.S. But in this case, with regards to Asian-Americans, they just don't see it.

MARTIN: They're saying what's the problem.

Prof. SY: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. What's the problem?

MARTIN: Well, what is the problem?

Prof. SY: If we look at the current U.S. census, what you find is Asians are the most educated group within the United States right now. They surpass their Caucasian counterpart in education. They also surpass a Caucasian counterpart in terms of earnings per capita. And in some of the research, they also surpassed all other groups with regards to their experience for the same type of position. So here you have this very capable group, who by other standards, are surpassing all other groups in the U.S. society. But yet, when it comes to leadership opportunities, promotions, perception of leadership capability, this group is perceived as less ideal of a leader.

MARTIN: What if educational level, per se, isn't a relevant to being the top person? I think a lot of us have the experience of knowing people who are perpetual students...

Prof. SY: Mm-hmm

MARTIN: ...and they might he really great at being students but that doesn't necessarily mean that that's somebody who you put in charge.

Prof. SY: One way to look at it is that the more skills you have, the more knowledge you have, the further you should go. And what we see is that that's generally a trend. So, for example, a lot of folks end up going back to get an executive or an MBA because that's the fast ticket to a corporate board room. So I think thats one way to look at it. But I take your point, in terms of whether education is relevant or not. I...

MARTIN: I mean like Bill Gates dropped out of college.

Prof. SY: Right.

MARTIN: And a lot of people look at people who are trendsetters and important figures in American culture, thats not why they are valued and esteemed. They are valued because they are creative, and exciting, and they invented something...

Prof. SY: Right.

MARTIN: ...or perceived to a person who changed the game.

Prof. SY: We're not saying that this is exactly the way things operate. Were saying, in general, these are the findings that we see in industry today.

MARTIN: What are the implications of this study? What do you think people should learn from them? And obviously, different people are going to take different things, depending on, you know, who they are in the story. But...

Prof. SY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm curious about what you think the message is here to Asian-Americans who are highly accomplished.

Prof. SY: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm interested in what message you think there is for people who are in a position to hire and promote.

Prof. SY: So let me take the latter part first, and address implications for companies. One thing I would say is that diversity or issues dealing with diversity oftentimes our viewed in a negative perspective. You know, oh, jeez, we have to address these issues because of legal reasons or whatnot. And I think in this regard, rather than looking at as a negative or a loss, the question that organizations can ask themselves is, what can be gained by addressing this issue with regards to Asian-Americans?

So, I'll give you one example. I won't name the company. But this one company has 10 percent of their employee base as Asian-American. From that 10 percent, 33 percent of their PhD's come from Asian-Americans. And that 33 percent of Asian-Americans help this company maintain the patent leader in their industry for more than a decade. So there's something to be gained here, I think, by leveraging skills, knowledge that you have within your organization.

Once theres recognition that there may be an issue here, how do we establish a certain sense of legitimacy in addressing diversity issues with Asian-Americans? An executive friend of mine offered the following advice, and I think it's accurate. You can address the diversity issues in corporate America by saying one of two things: One, it's the right thing to do. Or two, it's an economic imperative. And based on my 10 years of consulting experience with corporations, when it comes to Asian-Americans going after the right thing to do argument does not seem to work, because they just don't see it.

So the best approach is to actually take - to build a business case around economic imperatives - that what can be gained or what are we losing in terms of competitive market for revenue, because were not tapping into this group?

MARTIN: But is there another message, perhaps, for aspiring managers?

Prof. SY: Yes.

MARTIN: Which is maybe they're overly invested in one model of achievement...

Prof. SY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...which is not highly valued, or is not as highly valued as they think it should be? I mean, is it possible that the advice goes in another direction too...

Prof. SY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...which is that perhaps aspiring managers should be looking to develop another profile in leadership, like coaching a sports team or something like that that shows people...

Prof. SY: Right.

MARTIN: ...that they're charismatic?

Prof. SY: Thats a second point I want to get to, also.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. SY: So we know from research about 10 years ago, that Asian-Americans impression management focus is different from those that their managers expect from them. Asian-Americans are focusing on the wrong things. And what our research suggests is there's a sense among Asian-Americans that all I have to do is work hard, be technically competent, and I will be automatically promoted - higher management ranks. And our research is showing focusing the competent aspect, the technical competence, is not the path to take. One should focus on the masculinity, the strength. These are the core elements that American society seems to feel as ideal for leaders. So what do you...

MARTIN: That's a tough message for women? I dont know.

Prof. SY: I know. I know. And in fact...

MARTIN: What are the women supposed to...

Prof. SY: And in fact theres an entire literature, for the last 20 years, focused specifically on the issues of masculinity. And I'm not here to advocate that. I'm just here to say, even today, among corporations and society as whole, we still think about leaders as being very dominant. Not in terms of the sex - male female - but kind of the strong, domineering behavior.

MARTIN: I think I'm in good shape then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So before I let you go, before I let you go, I feel okay asking you about feelings, because in part you are professor of psychology.

Prof. SY: Sure.

MARTIN: So what feelings do people have when they hear this? Do people feel betrayed? Like, look, I did everything that was expected of me and I'm still not getting what? Or are people saying well, this is exciting now...

Prof. SY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...its confirmed, what I always suspected?

Prof. SY: Everyone that I've heard from have reacted with enthusiasm. They say, oh my gosh, finally. This is very interesting. Finally someone has documented what I have been experiencing. And hopefully, many of them have optimism that with these types of visibility, hopefully we could bring further sunshine as well as effort into addressing some of these issues. So it's been a very positive experience.

MARTIN: Thomas Sy is the lead author of the study titled "Leadership Perceptions as a Function of Race-Occupation Fit: The Case of Asian Americans." It was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And well link to it on our website if you'd like to read it for yourself. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs page and then on TELL ME MORE. Hes an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. And he was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West.

Professor Sy, thank you so much for joining us.

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