Sounds of leadership? A mismatch between Asian Americans’ communication style and norms for leaders in the United States Open Access

Lee, Sarah (Fall 2019)

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Asian Americans in the United States are overrepresented in professional occupations, yet underrepresented in top management. Extant literature in management suggests that leadership potential is signaled through self-expression, confidence, and optimism. However, the cultural psychology and sociolinguistics literatures suggest that communication norms for Asian Americans may conflict with these leadership expectations, because of Asian Americans’ cultural background and minority experience in the United States. I tested whether differential communication norms were observable in aspiring Asian- and White-American leaders’ non-accented, naturalistic speech, and whether these differences would affect evaluations of leadership potential and hireability/promotability. Results supported predictions that Asian- (vs. White-) American aspiring leaders would speak with less self-expression, less confidence, and less optimism (Study 1). Moreover, Asian- (vs. White-) American aspiring leaders were rated lower on communication effectiveness, leadership potential, and hireability, when participants were blind to speaker ethnicity (Study 2). These differences in perceptions were not exacerbated when participants were aware of speaker ethnicity (Study 3). Finally, showing the causal link between communication style and leadership outcomes, interviewees speaking in the Asian- (vs. White-) American style received lower ratings by business professionals (Study 4). I suggest that these culturally grounded communication differences pose an obstacle to Asian-American employees, causing them to be inaccurately perceived as deficient as leaders, and suggesting a possible explanation for the “bamboo ceiling.”

Table of Contents

List of Tables                                                                                                                         x

Introduction                                                                                                                            1

Theory                                                                                                                                    4

           Asian Americans are underrepresented in leadership                                                4

           Leader prototypes in the United States                                                                      4

           Cultural differences in ideal leadership                                                                     6

           Communication in leadership                                                                                    7

           Cultural differences in communication                                                                      8

Hypotheses                                                                                                                            12

Overview of Studies                                                                                                              14

Study 1: Identifying Differences in Communication Style between Asian- and White-American

Aspiring Leaders                                                                                                        16

1.1 Method                                                                                                                 17

1.2 Results                                                                                                                 22

1.3 Discussion                                                                                                           27

Study 2: Subjective Ratings of Asian and White Americans’ Entrepreneurial Speech        28

           2.1 Method                                                                                                                 28

           2.2 Results                                                                                                                 31

           2.3 Discussion                                                                                                           37

Study 3: Ratings of Asian and White Americans when Ethnicity is Revealed                     39

           3.1 Method                                                                                                                 41

           3.2 Results                                                                                                                 43

           3.3 Discussion                                                                                                          49

Study 4: Testing for the Causal Link between Asian (vs. White) Americans’ Communication

Style and Interviewee Evaluations                                                                             50

           4.1 Method                                                                                                                 52

           4.2 Results                                                                                                                 55

           4.3 Discussion                                                                                                           58

General Discussion                                                                                                                60

           Implications for the Leadership Literature                                                                60

           Implications for Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship                                               62

           Implications for Asian-American Professionals                                                       63

           Implications for Organizations                                                                                  64

References                                                                                                                              66

Appendix                                                                                                                                95

A.  Scripts for Study 4                                                                                                95

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