Can Asian leaders think and feel?

I am a problem solver by nature. It’s how my brain is wired. This trait was exemplified today when a colleague shared with me some of the challenges and frustrations she was having with work. Being the type of person that I am, my first inclination was to dissect the problem into small pieces, analyze it, and think of specific solutions. I’ll even draw illustrations with flow charts and graphs if it helps—the Ikea approach. If one solution doesn’t work, I’ll think of another, and then another, and so on and so forth, until we figured it out.

As we got further into the conversation, it became apparent that my colleague wasn’t looking for action steps or solutions; she needed time to process how she was feeling. The type of support she needed most, at that moment, was someone to listen to and acknowledge her frustrations. Basically, she needed empathy. It was a big moment for us and a reminder to me that “problem-solving” isn’t always the best solution.

Being a good leader is tricky business. You have to quickly and accurately respond to changing environments, situations, and people. The challenge can also be compounded by the stereotypes other’s place on you. For example, many people view Asians as too passive to be effective leaders. Sometimes, even Asians internalize these perceptions too. But ask any Asian child and we’ll tell you the same thing: “Don’t mess with a tiger mom.” Are Asians passive? Far from it. Do our cultural values shape the type of leaders we are? Absolutely.

Each style has their pros and cons; there’s no “one size fits” all approach. The hallmark of an effective leader is to be able to identify these various styles and adapt your behavior appropriately. Although there are many ways to define and characterize leadership, the two most common styles that I have come across are task-oriented and people-oriented.

Task-Oriented Leaders

If my example above wasn’t obvious enough, I fall in the “task-oriented” camp. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first reaction would be to help you solve your problem. It’s what I do and I’m good at it. I’m an analyzer. My world consists of order and logic.

Let’s say your parents didn’t know how to use the dishwasher (for Asians, that’s nearly all of us), I would feel compelled, even obligated, to tell your parents how magical dishwashers are and explain in detail how to properly use one. “Start by placing the dirty dishes on the rack. Add some slime in this cup here, close the door and say ‘abracadabra.’ Wait patiently for 30 minutes. Open the door and presto! Clean dishes.” Then I’d fist bump your mom. Mind blown.

Pros: Task-oriented people tend to rate high on technical skills. We take great pride in getting things done proficiently and efficiently. We spend many hours improving our skills and processes. Got a deadline? Piece of cake. A task-oriented person will have it done on time. We try to do more, and do it better and faster. Need help with data? We got you. Want relationship advice? You’re screwed.

Cons: Task-oriented leaders are so focused on getting the job done that they may forget how people feel, which is important because everyone has feelings (even Asian parents). They sometimes miss out on the big picture, which threatens creativity and team dynamics. It can result in poor interpersonal relationships or motivation problems. Many of the traditional career choices for Asian Americans tend to fall on this side of the spectrum: doctors, lawyers, engineers.

People-Oriented People

On the other hand, people-oriented leaders excel with interpersonal relationships. My co-worker is a good example this. She prioritizes relationships and is focused on making sure everyone on the team feels supported and heard.

If you ever approach a people-oriented person with a problem, they will likely ask you how you feel and then swaddle you until you fell asleep. They view the world as if it were a gigantic human chain, where everyone is connected and you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Pros: People-oriented leaders have the natural gift of empathy. This leadership style focuses on developing trust and rapport among coworkers, and encourages teamwork and collaboration. Their strong affinity for people makes them great office energizers. They naturally motivate others with their positive energy, effective use of trust falls, and occasional group pillow fights. People-oriented leaders believe that a positive, healthy work environment brings out the best in people, which ultimately leads to better results.

Cons: But people-oriented leaders may feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and responsibilities on their plate. They have trouble navigating chaos and may need more direction. As a result, sometimes important details are overlooked or forgotten, which may put a project in jeopardy or lead to ineffective decisions. Social workers, counselors and artists—basically, every profession Asian parents tell their children to avoid—generally fall on this side of the spectrum.

Achieving Harmony

In general, there’s a tendency to focus more on completing tasks and getting stuff done. You see this a lot in our American culture; everyone regularly works 50-60 hours a week without taking a vacation (not healthy at all). This trend also extends to Asian-Americans, which is somewhat ironic considering how everyone pencils us as a “collectivist” culture.

Being task-oriented could lead to short-term success, but in the long-time you’ll likely fail. People will burn out, lose motivation, and eventually move on.

It’s important to understand that leadership and behavioral styles vary from person to person and situation to situation. One style isn’t inherently better than the other. Nor does it mean that you need to spend 50% of your time on each.

Task and People-Oriented Yin Yang

The key to effective leadership is finding a healthy balance between the technical skills needed to get the job done, and the people skills required to make relationships last. When we achieve balance, people will put in more time and energy into completing tasks. And we’ll all have a little fun in the process.

Next week, I’ll discuss how Asians can identify if they are task- or people-oriented, and how you can effectively work with these styles.

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