It starts when we are children. We’re told as long as we produce good work, we will be rewarded. The lie is further perpetuated in school where we are awarded stickers and good grades for the quality of our work. And then comes university where the only thing between you and graduation is how well you can answer exam questions. And you think you’ve got this link between effort and reward figured out.
Enter the workplace. You start at the bottom. You might be the graduate, the intern – whatever your role is called. At the start, you’re tasked with the menial tasks: checking over things, making folders for your bosses, research tasks. And you do them, and you do them well. You are eventually rewarded with a promotion. And you think, ‘My hard work has paid off – the meritocracy is alive and well!’
This might go on for a few years and you find yourself climbing the junior ranks with the same approach – hard work gets rewarded. You’re now at the cusp of getting the first leadership role. And you notice a subtle change in the language being used during your performance appraisals. It’s not so much about the quality of your work, and more about how you are perceived. You notice certain phrases that are repeated over and over again: you seem too chilled; you need to appear more driven; you need to be more visible. And suddenly it is not just about the quality of your work and you find yourself asking: Why are people perceiving me this way? Do I need to change? How do I change?
They thought I was “too chilled and lacked ambition” which was clearly not the case
The first time I was described as ‘appears too chilled’ was when I was applying for a promotion. After the interview, the panel decided to call my manager and asked to clarify if I was in fact ‘driven’ because my outward persona seemed ‘too chilled.’ I was lucky to have a manager that vouched for me and told the panel to not confuse my understated demeanour with a lack of motivation or drive. As a result, I got my promotion. But it made me think. What if the panel never bothered to test their perception of me? What if I had a manager who I didn’t get along with? Did others have a similar perception of me? Had I been overlooked for opportunities because people doubted my ambition, drive or motivation?
Turns out this tendency for East Asians to be viewed as lacking in ambition is quite common. So it’s not just me! But why does this perception exist? Well for me it’s probably related to being brought up with Chinese values. I was taught that if there was something that needed to be done, I should do it without a fuss, and most importantly, I shouldn’t draw attention to myself. This was paramount. I shouldn’t stand out from everyone else because in doing so was arrogant. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘The loudest duck gets shot.’ This way of doing things was drilled into me from childhood. This was the norm for me.
What I didn’t realise was that this was not the norm for everyone else in a predominately Anglo-Celtic workplace. Calmly doing my work without hassle, without making a big deal was my modus operandi, but not everyone else’s. To others, the understatedness in which I described my achievements, and the way I quietly did my work, may have given the impression that I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing and did not have a desire to lead. What is actually going on is that, to me, it feels wrong to attract the spotlight but it has no bearing on my ambition. I’m perfectly happy to take the lead – I just feel really uncomfortable making a scene about it.
Our quiet, understated nature could be interpreted as submissive, subservient, and lacking in drive and leadership
But again, is this just me? Am I just maladapted to the Anglo-Celtic workplace even though I was born in Australia? Looks like many East Asians have this issue with the spotlight. More vindication! We just haven’t been taught or learnt the skills to promote ourselves that conform to Anglo-Celtic norms. And it’s hard to do something when it feels wrong. But as a consequence, our quiet, understated nature could be interpreted as submissive, subservient, and lacking in drive and leadership.
This contrasts starkly with reality as it seems culturally diverse employees are actually more ambitious than their Anglo-Celtic peers. Who knew!
Since that interview, the question about my drive or commitment to my job has been raised numerous times during performance discussions. Even though I stay back late to get work done, actively seek out learning and development opportunities, and stay on top of the latest research, I still get questioned about my drive and ambition. It seems like no matter what I do, I can’t shake this perception of me. How do I reprogram my behaviours and undo an entire life’s worth of cultural upbringing in order to conform to the social norms of Anglo-Celtic culture?
And thinking about this, I start feeling angry. Because no one told me that there are certain mannerisms I have that are not the norm and that I’d be misjudged for them. I felt like I’d been lied to. It wasn’t just about the quality of my work. Because, at a certain point, no matter how good my work is, it is people’s perceptions of me that will determine the opportunities I get, the progression of my career, potential earnings and ultimately my quality of life. And I can’t help but feel that, compared to my Anglo-Celtic peers, my chances of being chosen for the next big opportunity is quite slim. This is further amplified when I see so few non-Anglo-Celtic people in leadership positions.
In Australia, only 5 per cent of our senior leaders are from a non-Anglo-Celtic and non-European background. It seems the rest of us are just not cut out to be leaders.
The thing is, I didn’t really notice how rare it is for me to be chosen for opportunities until it happened to me. I’m used to seeing others being chosen for things: attending corporate functions, secondments, travelling with the manager, presenting to the executives, interviewed for the staff newsletter. I can name one time that I was chosen – a manager chose me to be on a team for a project. One. And it felt weird. It felt weird not having to have worked for it. It felt weird to have been chosen. Apart from that one time, I’ve had to put my hand up if I wanted to travel; volunteer myself to lead a project; ask if I could present to the executives. No one taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘I think you’d be great at this.’ Every time, I’ve had to raise my hand and fight for these opportunities because I feel they will not be given to me. It’s like there’s this whole other world that I do not have access to, and have no idea how to access where people are magically given things. What a wonderful world that must be.
There are new rules at play and hard work does not simply cut it
So what do you do now that you know? You now know the road ahead for you is harder than the road your peers will travel on. The quality of your work alone will not get you there. You’ve finally realised there are new rules at play.
There are two things you can do: one – change the system, and two – make up for lost time, equip yourself and learn to play the new game.
It’s not going to be an easy ride, but as more and more of us become aware, the more we can learn from each other and the faster we can move forward together to break through the proverbial cultural ceiling.
Were you told the ‘big lie’ as a child? Do you think there is such thing as a meritocracy? Please share your thoughts with us on your experience.
Virginia has more than a decade of experience in small business, non-government organisations and the public sector. In that time, she has witnessed some of the barriers people from a culturally diverse background face in the workplace, and knows how frustrating and isolating this experience can be. She hopes that her insights gained from her work experience can help aid others as they navigate their own career journey.