Asian Americans face an array of stereotypes. On the one hand, they’re associated with intelligence, hard work, and humility, but they’re also seen as shy, cold, and submissive. Compared to the prototypical business leader—sociable, bold, assertive—Asian Americans may seem like a mismatch, and workforce data show that Asian-American professionals are the least likely to be promoted into management.
However, there seems to be one exception to that rule. When companies are in decline, they’re two and a half times more likely to appoint an Asian-American CEO.
In a recent analysis of over 5,000 CEOs (pdf) published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers hypothesize this phenomenon is driven by Asian-American stereotypes. When a company is in decline, so the thinking goes, they want a leader who will buckle down and work hard, and sacrifice glitz and glory (like bonuses or lavish travel expenses) for the good of their employees. Asian Americans are seen as a good fit for that. But when a company’s doing well, Asian Americans’ “self-sacrificing ways” seem at odds with the prototypical dominant, bold leader.
Previous research has identified a similar effect for women, who, when they break through the glass ceiling, are then prone to falling off “the glass cliff.” This phenomenon describes companies hiring female CEOs into risky and unstable situations they are expected to fix, which may include challenges like tightened resources, low morale, and high stress. This creates an unusually high bar for those CEOs; if they don’t succeed, it may be seen as a reflection of that leader’s abilities, not the problems they inherited. And then they get fired for it, at a faster clip than their male predecessors.
In their analysis, the researchers found that Asian-American leaders tapped to lead declining companies also faced a glass cliff, experiencing shorter tenures as leaders than white leaders in the same position. Even when Asian Americans were asked to lead companies that were not in decline, they were in charge for about half as long as white CEOs (3.25 years versus six years).
The researchers also ran a few online experiments to dig deeper into people’s perceptions of Asian-American leaders. In one study, participants read a fake article, either about a struggling company or a successful one. They were then asked to rate how important they thought certain behaviors were in a leader, like working weekends or forgoing a bonus. People who read the article about a struggling company were more likely to think that “Alex Wong” would make a better CEO than “Anthony Smith”; compared to the white candidate, the Asian-American leader seemed like a better match for participants’ idea of a selfless leader. In a different study, participants rated the CEO “Alex Wong” as more likely to be self-sacrificing, and in a third study, participants chose an Asian-American executive to lead a struggling company.
While these analyses primarily focused on male leaders, Asian-American women are also extremely underrepresented in leadership roles. Both women and Asian Americans face the glass cliff effect, though this paper’s authors hypothesize that a different set of stereotypes are at work when hiring women leaders to lead failing companies: Women are seen as better at smoothing out social situations, while Asians are tapped to lead for their selflessness. This puts Asian-American women in an interesting position, since sociability is usually at odds with Asian stereotypes.
The authors write that the glass cliff arises primarily from unconscious bias, so raising awareness among employees can be useful in helping people identify their own biases. “Stereotypical perceptions of Asian-American leaders can encourage unrealistically high expectations, which can evoke feelings of disappointment and a willingness to return to a more traditional leader,” the authors write.
Given that 72% of corporate executives are white men, it’s going to take some work to shift our idea of a “traditional leader” to include women or people of color.