Testing Personal Limits and Negotiables in Your Profession

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I was very honored to be invited to be a guest speaker recently at ASPIRE (a group that does fantastic leadership development work for young Asian women, www.girlsaspire.org).  The participants consisted largely of Asian-American women in their mid to late-20’s.  We talked about the opportunities and challenges for Asian women working in US organizations to feel “at ease” and to be perceived as respected leaders in their professions.  One of the discussion points that I found particularly riveting was the question of how do we know when we’ve hit the boundaries of what is “comfortable and acceptable” for me?
There are two sides to this question that I’d like to address.
The first is about how much we dare to “get out there” and express ourselves.  Our Asian culture has been clear (and it doesn’t matter if you’re a 3rd generation Asian-American, the messaging is still there) — listen to and abide by the commands of elders/authority figures and respond at your own risk.  For so many generations, we have been demanded to be obedient followers – and this is particularly true for women.  No matter how smart we are, no matter how loud we are with our friends…when put in front of elders and persons of authority we morph into these serene receptors.  Our natural reflex is to accept and agree.  Even if we have a different idea, we accept first and maybe respond later. This is how we were taught by our parents.  Understandably this is what we accept to be “the norm” when we head to the workplace.  NOT!
The workplace expects us to demonstrate our knowledge, commitment and accomplishments.  If we can’t prove it, it didn’t happen.  One woman spoke of how other people are taking credit for her work but she’s too uncomfortable to take the credit in such a public forum.   It was clear that this work situation bothered her deeply but given her upbringing, she just couldn’t bring herself to speak up.  It touched me deeply to hear this because I hear this so often from Asian and international professionals.  It is something that I had to deal with.  It is something my immigrant father never was able to master and suffered as a consequence.  Here’s the advice I gave her that I’d like to share with you.  Take the credit!!!  Do it for no other reason than self-respect.  Yes, it is hard.  But if you don’t do it, someone else may take the credit for it.  How unfair is that?
So here’s what you can say when your co-worker takes the credit, “…yes Bob, we had worked on this together (affirm that person’s claim, if appropriate) but the particular financial modeling that you’re speaking about was a project I had worked on independently.  As you may recall, I had (give an overview of what you did — proof point)… and it is this modeling work that led to the current conclusion and solution… This “credit taker” may fight you the first time, but as you defend yourself, that person will begin to back down. And if you have a competent and fair boss, (s)he will dig deeper to get to the truth.  Net, net…stand up for your work or it may never be recognized.  You can do it with grace and still get the point across.
The second is about how much “should you take” if you feel someone is taking advantage of you, patronizing you or degrading you?  There is no easy black and white answer to this.  As one participant mentioned, Asian women tend to look 10 years younger than their actual age and may not be as respected by their colleagues when compared with Caucasian males.  I say our looks can be a curse and a blessing (the latter as we age!).  But we can’t change the way we look.  However, we can hold ourselves with dignity and respect.  We can walk with certainty and sit at the table with confidence that we belong there regardless of how we’re received.  I know it’s easier said than done, having been through it myself. But here’s how.  First you must respect yourself (I used to feel more respect for myself only after having been offended by someone else!).  Second, you must believe you belong there, as much as the 6’2″ Caucasian male who looks like most of the people there (that’s just the reality that you will be in the minority).  Third, you must be as prepared as possible for those meetings.  Fourth, sit up, sit forward, be engaged and dare to take the space even if you feel like a fraud and want to throw up.  I guarantee you, the more you do it, the better it gets!
Finally, if anyone should ever put you down in public, you must first know that (s)he is the problem, not you (but be open to hearing the real critique).  And you can exercise the choice to stand up for yourself, either in public or in private later.  I always believe that strategic humor is a great solution to these situations. Either way, that person needs to know that you are not to be treaded on.  Asians tend to be conflict avoiders.  We don’t need to be conflict lovers.  We just need to respect our dignity and call on others when we feel our limits have been trespassed.  There is no black or white here.  You must trust how you feel.  You must walk it and deal with it.  Maybe you’ll make a mistake here or there.  That’s ok.  We’re all here to learn.
Personal limits is just that, personal.  So take credit when due and stand up for yourself when you feel even the slightest bit degraded.  It’s about self-dignity.  Never get to the “lower state” of the other person. It can be done with grace and humor.  That is true respect and dignity, for you and all others involved.