Cooperation: Another Reason For A Bamboo Ceiling?

A new study in Organization Science found some interesting differences in the way Americans and Chinese perceive what is considered cooperation. In many cases the American respondents and Chinese respondents selected exactly opposite actions as examples of “cooperation.”

On one question about the willingness to drop one’s own activity to help another group member with a different task, Americans said the faster that people do that, the more cooperative they seem. But the Chinese said a situation in which several members of the group help with the other’s task as soon as they’re done with some of their own — rather than putting their own tasks aside immediately — showed greater cooperation.
In another example of this same dichotomy in thought, test subjects were shown two kinds of groups: one where “[m]embers try to outperform other members” and another where “members don’t try to perform better or faster than other members.” Americans felt the second group displayed greater cooperation, but the Chinese felt that the competitive group displayed more cooperation than a noncompetitive one.

There were other examples as well, where Chinese perception of cooperation and American perception were exactly opposite. Some of these differences in how cooperation is perceived may help to explain why there’s a bamboo ceiling, or a lack of Asian Americans in management roles. It’s possible Asian Americans aren’t perceived as team members and that they lack cooperation, when in fact their actions reflect what they consider to be cooperative team membership.

Or maybe it’s something else entirely. An explanation comes from a recent article titled “Why Chinese are Bad Managers” in The Diplomat.

That Chinese would equate management with warfare helps explain why they’re so singularly bad at it. Mao Zedong’s idealism may be long dead and buried, but his politics is alive and flourishing in Chinese offices. To ease their own violent paranoia, Chinese managers instill and augment violent paranoia in their staff. To maintain absolute control, they will practice divide-and-conquer by constantly changing favourites, spreading innuendos and rumours and lies, and acting arbitrarily and violently to induce terror.

The thought of treating your employees as the “enemy” and instilling paranoia in the staff certainly is undoubtedly non-cooperative. I actually have the more of an issue with the Diplomat article, since I’m a manager. Though I am Chinese American rather than Chinese, I definitely don’t adhere to the micromanagement and divide-and-conquer mentality mentioned by the author of the article. But the idea that Chinese have different views on what’s considered cooperation from Americans is one that I can definitely see as a hindrance to climbing the corporate ladder.

It sort of reminds me of the SDI (Strength Deployment Inventory), where there’s a personality type called a “hub.” People who have the type “hub” generally consider themselves the least political of all the personality types, but the personality type most associated with being political is the “hub” personality. So maybe Asian Americans shoot themselves in the foot by acting in ways that make them look uncooperative, and not a team player, while they themselves think they’re doing everything possible to be a team player.

What do you think, is there a dichotomy in the way Asian Americans view cooperation versus the way American mainstream views it?

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About Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.
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