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  • Sophie Chen

How Being Brought Up By Asian Parents Affects Your Leadership Style

I recently was caught in between my sister and my parents. They wanted me to intervene in a family situation and I was about to do what they had asked me to and my husband stopped me. He said “It is not your problem to solve. You are so brave in so many other aspects but you cannot stand up to your parents, it is ridiculous! Now go put on your big girl shoes and tell them No.”

Sophie Chen executive coach with her parents
Sophie Chen with her parents

That statement left me…. dumbfounded and I was reflecting on it for days. It was ridiculous, absolutely absurd. Here I am at the age of 51 and I am still petrified to disagree with my parents, my father in particular. As I was reflecting on the “Put on Your Big Girl Shoes”, I realized that many of my clients of Asian heritage encounter the same challenge. There are so many cultural barriers and biases that we grapple with…..

Ingrained Obedience

While I was working with one client in particular on her relationship with her 'boss' (in single quotes, because I don't like the word and try not to use it), I noticed that she places very heavy emphasis on how she is seen by him. Her strong desire to be recognized and complimented by the ‘boss’ was affecting her. She was not sure if she was actually doing her job well or on the right track because he rarely acknowledges her efforts or gave her feedback. And if he ever verbalizes anything, it is usually questions; questions around the content or quality of her work. She felt insecure about his questioning. Over time, she took the questioning as a form of challenge and reprimand. And her self-confidence started to dwindle. She tried even harder to seek validation from him which rarely came by. I came to know that my client was the eldest in her family and it was ingrained in her that as the eldest child in the family, she has to display exemplary behavior to her siblings. She has to be nothing less than perfect academically and is expected to excel in every aspect of her life. And as most of us growing up with Asian parents, there is a strong emphasis on obedience and conformity. There is this unspoken pressure to conform to cultural norms and filial piety. No questions asked just do as you are told. And when we do something good, our parents would hardly verbalize praise, all we get is a nod, at best a smile.

So, how is this related to her work situation? Well first off, she regarded her ‘boss’ as an authority figure just like her dad in this case. Whenever she accomplishes a task, she seeks some form of validation and affirmation. Secondly, she is not used to asking questions. We were not allowed to. So instead of having a dialogue with the ‘boss’ to clarify what his questions meant etc, she took it as criticism. And it ate her up.

I see this with another client too. Every time her ’boss’ asked her questions, she would cringe and would want to just crawl into a hole. There was so much fear around being questioned. And the side-effect of that was that self-confidence starts to take a plunge. The solution to this was to introduce the idea of ‘Re-framing’. Instead of jumping straight into the pool of negative thoughts, I suggested telling yourself that when the ‘boss’ throws questions at you, he or she is perhaps seeking some clarification to better understand your work, and your thought process perhaps. It is also to ensure you have covered all bases. Or perhaps it is their way of stretching your thinking a little further, making you explore areas that you would not otherwise. Not every question has a negative connotation.

And we can mitigate the situation by asking good clarifying questions. Filial piety blocks us from doing this and it is detrimental to our leadership style. We too then expect our team not to ask questions of us. So, what happens to the organization? It becomes a top-down management style with one-way conversations. Filial piety is a cultural value that emphasizes so much respect for parents and elders. Asian parenting often emphasizes the importance of obedience and conformity. Children are taught to respect authority and to follow rules and traditions. This can translate into a leadership style that values hierarchy, structure, and following established protocols.

"Little Miss Perfect" Syndrome

The "Little Miss Perfect" syndrome is something a lot of us suffer from. A client of mine transitioned into a C-suite role and she struggled for months because she thinks that in her position, she must know everything, have a solution for all the challenges and she must appear strong. Why does she think that? Again, because her father had ingrained in her when she was a child she is to be nothing less than perfect. Being perfect meant that she cannot show vulnerability. Admitting that she does not know or not having all the answers was unacceptable. The outcomes of this ‘thinking’ led to some serious challenges. She was overburdened and burnout. The pressure to possess all the answers placed a heavy burden on leaders. She was overwhelmed and stressed and all that led to exhaustion and decreased effectiveness.

From our sessions, I came to realize that there was very little trust and engagement within her team. She was constantly asserting that she has all the answers and it eroded trust within her team When a leader appears unwilling to listen, learn, or consider others' viewpoints, it can create a culture of disengagement and demotivation. Team members may feel undervalued, leading to decreased trust in the leader's judgment and decision-making abilities. Again, we had to work on ‘Re-framing’ and shifting her thinking. Took a while for her to realize that displaying vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but rather it is a sign of bravery.

It is so vital for us to be aware of our upbringing and how it may be influencing our leadership style so that we can develop a well-rounded approach to leadership that balances our cultural values with the needs of our team or organization.

So, when was the last time you put on your Big Girl Shoes?

Sophie Chen executive coach
Sophie Chen

Sophie Chen is a recognized leader with 25 years of extensive hospitality and integrated resort management experience. With her "Leap with Sophie Chen" programs and consulting practice, she helps female leaders discover fast ways to refuel their passion, to be challenged and inspired again.

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