When Worlds Near-Miss

You speak English without a trace of accent. American customs and attitudes are second nature.

So why do you sometimes feel like you’re on the wrong planet?

One of the least understood difficulties that Asian Americans face in the workplace results from the subtle but very real influence Asian heritage can have on the way even fourth or fifth-generation Asian Americans relate to their bosses and colleagues. It may not be as obvious as the problems of language and customs encountered by immigrant Asians, but its impact on job-satisfaction, advancement and success is just as real. Here are five tips to help keep your career from being sidetracked by a cultural disconnect.

1. Keep your boss updated on what you’re doing.

The Asian bias in favor of modesty is a cultural trait developed over thousands of years. It doesn’t disappear because your family may have been in the U.S. for two, three, four or even five generations. The trait is one of the things that wins Asians respect and admiration over the long haul.

Unfortunately, this slow, patient approach to building trust and credibility isn’t usually favored by the pace of the modern workplace. In theory your boss is supposed to keep an eye on your contribution and reward it. The reality is otherwise. Her attention is taken up by fires to put out, superiors to report to, clients to hand-hold. The efforts of an employee quietly and diligently performing valuable work are often drowned out by noisier and more urgent demands.

If you want your contributions recognized, you have to get in there and grab your share — or more — of her attention!

Barging into her office to brag about what you’ve done probably isn’t your style and won’t go over big. But there are tactful, constructive ways to make sure she’s current on your contributions. One way is to say, “If you have a few minutes some time next week, I’d like to touch bases to make sure my priorities are in line with what you expect.” Or, “I’d like a few minutes to compare notes on the timetable on the Acme project.” By making a point of grabbing a few minutes of her undivided attention on a weekly or monthly basis, you can keep her updated on the contributions you’ve been making to the group’s success. When the time comes for her to evaluate and reward your work, she will be far more likely to give you the credit you deserve.

2. Praise your colleagues.

Asian culture is schizophrenic on the issue of praise. On the one hand, generous amounts of empty praise is often lavished as a gesture of courtesy and friendly intentions, especially by females. On the other hand, praise is rarely given in a work context to recognize a job well done. It’s considered impertinent for an inferior or a peer to bestow professional praise while superiors are expected to show appreciation with money or other rewards rather than with flattering words.

But praise or words of appreciation are a routine part of American workplace interaction. “Hey, you did a super job on that report,” or “We couldn’t have done it without you!” are heard almost constantly. In fact, most Americans consider such informal recognition and appreciation to be as important a reward as raises and promotions. That means the ability to praise well is a key attribute of a successful executive.

If you have your eyes on the executive suite, shed the Asian reticence toward giving praise and start becoming more aware of how you might better recognize and encourage inferiors, peers and even superiors. It’s a way of showing that you’re interested in other members of the team and in its success. Also, it will get everyone used to seeing you as an important source of positive reinforcement — a role that will definitely help you move up the ranks.

Honest and informed admiration for a job well done is the right tone. “I just wanted to thank you for that memo last week. I got a lot of great information from it,” is an example. Another might be, “You stepped in in the nick of time to clear up that misunderstanding with Beckwith.” But take care not to sabotage yourself by becoming known as someone who dishes out unctious or meaningless compliments. “Wow, you always come through in the clutch!” is asinine because it isn’t specific and way too gushy. Next

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