By Rae Cook
As I travel from company to company as a communication expert, I often hear from and about Chinese engineers, scientists, and marketing professionals who are obviously underemployed in the US, meaning that they are not being promoted at the rate that might be expected. They have advanced degrees from good schools, are incredibly dedicated to their work, reliable, easy to get along with, and highly intelligent, and yet they remain at mid-level in many American companies. Why? Because Chinese professionals come from a culture with communication rules that are the opposite of what you need to succeed in North America.
There are 5 key ways that Chinese professionals reduce their chances of promotion in US corporations, and they relate to culture, speaking (especially in public), and mindset.
Here are the 5 reasons, and I will follow with 5 changes you can make in speaking and behavior to change from invisible/not promoted to highly promotable:
Problem: By Chinese cultural standards, boasting is bad behavior. By boasting, I mean talking about your achievements with pride and often exaggeration. Also, speaking in public about your personal accomplishments is not something you do for yourself. Someone else, like your boss, is supposed to do that, but that is rarely true in the US. Boasting is the #1 way that Americans let others know what they offer and the potential they have.
Solution: If you are uncomfortable with American style boasting, then talk about yourself indirectly. For example, say, “Many other scientists say that using my mathematical models has saved time and money.” Keep your comments about yourself short, and practice saying them aloud before you say them in public, so that you can say them confidently.
Problem: By Chinese cultural standards, speaking up in public is okay if you are 100% sure of what you are saying. By US standards, the average professional speaks up even if only 20% sure of what they are saying. Does this image of who speaks the most in meetings match what I am saying here? Most Chinese laugh when I tell them this fact. What is the result of speaking up only when you are 100% sure of what you are saying? The obvious answer is you rarely speak up. Consequently, you may be perceived as too unassertive or uninvolved, and you simply will not be noticed as much as someone who speaks up much more than you do.
Solution: Speak up more in public, but say say general statements or questions rather than highly expert and specific things. You should not wait until you have formulated the perfect response. Then your speaking will actually be too late!
Examples of general speaking are:
“That idea could be expensive.”
“To think about this topic, we have to consider cost.”
“What about the variable X?”
“I think we should also talk about the timeline.”
(Notice how short these statements are?)
Problem: Many Chinese professionals doubt the accuracy of their English listening comprehension, so they don’t speak up due to fear that they “missed something” and therefore might say something ignorant or stupid. Wrong! Americans accept many positive things in professional settings — that you were not born here, that no one listens all that carefully, and that since you are a respected professional, no question is all that stupid.
Solution: Back to participation – showing what you know by participating even if you think you must have missed something can have a big impact on how your talents and knowledge are perceived. Say, “Maybe I missed something, but doesn’t that database have some limitations?”
Problem: Many Chinese professionals have an excessively limited view of when they should talk and so only speak when their expertise is the key issue. What is the problem with that? That is a big problem, because promotable American leaders are expected to recognize that speaking as an expert is only part of your job.
The rest of the time you are expected to facilitate, lead, and partner. If you only speak as an expert, then your contribution is very narrow and limited, and you easily become viewed as a “tool” like a screwdriver, that the team “takes out of the box” and uses only when a very particular need is present for a “screwdriver” such as data analyst’s task. If you are viewed in such a limited way, you will not be viewed as “well-rounded enough” (with a wide range of skills) and therefore not very promotable.
Solution: Speak like a facilitator, partner, or leader. Examples:
(facilitator): “I think we should talk more about X to conceive of more options. Don’t you think so, too?”
(partner): “Let’s look at the problem together — if your department provides X then we can provide Y. By working together, we will all be successful.”
(leader): “To reach our goals, we will need to do A.”
Problem: If you are from China, you might assume that your manager will facilitate your movement up the career ladder as is the case in China, but In the US, your manager will often wait for you to tell him or her what you want in terms of career advancement and sponsorship. If you act Chinese and do not initiate a career discussion with your boss, then often your boss won’t think you are interested in promotions and he or she will not seek opportunities for you. In the US, managers are taught that their role includes developing people. However, they are often too busy to think of development, even during performance appraisals.
Solution: Share positive feedback you get from others with your manager ASAP, and give your manager the “story” or background information for the praise so that he or she can talk about you to other managers who work on promotion decision-making. Also, let your manager know what you want to do next and how it will have a considerable positive impact on the organization. Example: “If I apply my experience at Nokia here at Google, then I could show our people how to market better. I would need to be promoted to a marketing director to really have a way to share my knowledge for Google.”
There are more factors, but these are big influencers on promotability in the US. Be conscious of your thought processes when in the US and then be conscious of what your speaking and behavior look like. The other factors relate to body language, wording, and timing of communications. Let me know how you are doing as you incorporate some new solutions to your career advancement.
Rae Cook started her communication improvement business after years as a resource consultant at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and adjunct faculty at Drexel University, with the goal of solving the specific problems of communicating in the US and being clear and convincing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.