May 22, 2014
NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — You’ve probably heard of the glass ceiling that can restrict women’s upward mobility in the workplace, but what about the bamboo ceiling?
According to Jane Hyun’s research for her book, “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling,” while Asians are well represented in entry-level positions, few advance to senior management ranks or corporate board positions because of cultural barriers or a lack of organizational resources. To help combat this trend, Hyun gave lessons in cultural fluency as part of NAVAIR’s national celebration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month May 15.
Cultural fluency, Hyun explained, is “the right mix of cultural awareness, knowledge, sensitivity and interpersonal astuteness needed to effectively navigate in a variety of organizational and cross-cultural contexts.”
Leaders who are culturally fluent have several core characteristics, according to Hyun, including the ability to see differences as an asset, an insatiable curiosity for learning, the ability to adapt to a variety of thinking and communication styles, and the willingness to play an active part in creating an inclusive culture.
Cultural fluency is necessary in the workplace because without it, Hyun explained, it can lead to interpersonal conflicts, unaligned teams, the inability to attract and retain diverse talent, insufficient communication and an alienated customer base.
“We all, as leaders and aspiring leaders, need to leverage this thing called cultural diversity,” she said.
At NAVAIR, diversity is part of the long-range strategy to “encourage diversity of skills, background and experience to enhance problem solving, creativity and innovation,” according to NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. David Dunaway.
Asians make up approximately 7 percent of the NAVAIR workforce and almost 5 percent of the U.S. population. Of NAVAIR’s 39 Senior Executive Service members, none self-identify as Asian-American.
“It is extremely important for all employees, regardless of ethnicity, to know there is an opportunity to excel and promote within our organization. For Asian-Americans, there are very few high grades in the ranks,” said Rear Adm. CJ Jaynes, an executive champion of NAVAIR's Asian-American and Pacific Islander Diversity Advisory Team. “The focus of our team will be to identify barriers and assist the Asian-American and Pacific Islander employees in breaking down those barriers and finding paths for advancement.”
According to Hyun’s research, Asian values can sometimes clash with Western corporate culture. Asian values emphasize collectivism, deference to authority figures and maintenance of interpersonal harmony, whereas Western culture tends to focus on competition and individual gain.
Because of this, many Asian professionals report they are often misunderstood in business settings. Second- and third-generation Asian-Americans who don’t speak an Asian dialect report being mistaken as foreigners or expatriates in the workplace.
Hyun understands the cultural divide firsthand, having moved to New York City from South Korea at age 8. She said the differences in the educational system were stark. In Korea, students are taught not to question the teachers or debate the lessons. In the U.S., however, her teacher pulled her aside to ask why Hyun wasn’t asking any questions in the classroom. That, she said, was her a-ha moment.
“My whole cultural context had changed,” she said.
To help become more culturally fluent, Hyun challenged employees to:
- Take a risk and share something about themselves to another person.
- Be strategic and identify their career goals.
- Construct their story and tell it to others.
- Remain curious by asking genuine questions and listening.
- Value differences and see them as an opportunity to learn more.
The event, with a theme of “Diverse Leadership and Expanding Opportunity: An Imperative for America,” also marked the official launch of NAVAIR’s new Asian-American/Pacific Islander Diversity Advisory Team, which seeks to explore and eliminate possible barriers Asian-Americans may experience in moving into senior management. NAVAIR’s other diversity advisory teams focus on individuals with disabilities, Hispanic engagement, African-Americans and women.