NPR: Do Asians Lack the Charisma to Lead?

Is former Washington governor — and future Ambassador to China — Gary Locke the exception to the rule? (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

With Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month right around the corner here in the United States, NPR's Tell Me More program looked into a recent study that suggests a stereotype exists in the American workplace: "That Asian-Americans are technically competent, but somehow not qualified for the top job," as host Michel Martin put it. The man behind the study, University of California-Riverside psychology professor Thomas Sy, was Martin's guest.

Here's a taste:

Prof. SY: The first key point is that Asian-Americans, they are perceived as less ideal leaders than Caucasian-Americans. The second question our research answered was, why do people have that perception? And what we found is essentially race. For Asian-Americans, it activated a competent leader prototype. Whereas for a Caucasian, it activated what some people term a charismatic leadership prototype.

And what we know from decades of research is that when it comes to top-level management, the ideal leader is someone who's actually charismatic, who's masculine, who's in control of his or her destiny. Whereas for midlevel managers, the perception is more in line with the competent leader prototype. So the idea is that if Asians are perceived as competent, they might be viewed as more in line with midlevel and lower level management positions.

MARTIN: So they're great number two, not going to be number one.

Prof. SY: That's right. Yeah.

Sy said many corporations have responded to his findings in a manner that suggests they "do not understand that there is an issue." In effect, they are saying, "What's the problem?"

MARTIN: Well, what is the problem?

Prof. SY: If we look at the current U.S. census, what you find is Asians are the most educated group within the United States right now. They surpass their Caucasian counterpart in education. They also surpass a Caucasian counterpart in terms of earnings per capita. And in some of the research, they also surpassed all other groups with regards to their experience for the same type of position. So here you have this very capable group, who by other standards, are surpassing all other groups in the U.S. society. But yet, when it comes to leadership opportunities, promotions, perception of leadership capability, this group is perceived as less ideal of a leader.

Sy's study only compared perceptions of Asian-Americans to perceptions of Caucasian-Americans. Perhaps even more telling would have been a comparison of perceptions of Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, African-Americans and other minorities? You can read the full transcript here, or listen to the program below.

About the Author

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Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.