Stereotypes of East Asians lacking in creativity impacts leadership advancement in USA


Organizations need to be aware of notions that exacerbate creativity stereotyping

Cambridge, MA, Nov. 09, 2023 - The computer analyst who quietly supports the group leader. The “geek” who serves as a punchline. The math genius relegated to the role of sidekick. What do these common depictions of East Asian characters in mainstream American movies and television shows have in common? They portray East Asians as hardworking and “book smart”—but not “street smart”—and lacking in creativity in a culture that places significant emphasis on creativity as a leadership quality.

In a new research paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Associate Professor  from the MIT Sloan School of Management has found that East Asians (e.g., ethnic Chinese, Japanese, Korean) are stereotyped in the United States as lacking in creativity, which in turn may contribute to the “Bamboo Ceiling” in leadership attainment—a puzzling phenomenon where, despite the educational and economic achievements of East Asians in the United States, they remain underrepresented in leadership roles.

“Creativity, by definition, involves deviating from existing norms and practices,” says Lu. “Meanwhile, East Asian cultures often emphasize conformity, humility, and acceptance.” 

Lu notes evidence of this cultural perspective in East Asian proverbs such as, “the boughs that bear most hang lowest” and “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” These East Asian proverbs stand in stark contrast to the American proverb, “don’t hide your light under a bushel.” East Asians who tend to behave in ways that emphasize conformity, humility, and acceptance may thus be perceived as lacking creativity in U.S. culture, notes Lu.

“If East Asians are perceived as less creative than other ethnic groups, and if perceived creativity is a positive predictor of leadership emergence in the U.S., then East Asians may face challenges in rising to leadership positions,” says Lu. “Individuals like Steve Jobs, on the other hand, are often viewed as creative thought leaders irrespective of their actual leadership styles.”

To verify his hypothesis, Lu conducted two field studies at a U.S. business school, in which he found that East Asian MBA students were perceived by their classmates as less creative than other ethnicities (e.g., South Asian, white) at the beginning of the MBA program—when the students had limited interactions and thus were likely influenced by creativity stereotypes. Such lower perceived creativity helped explain why East Asians were less likely than other ethnicities to be nominated and elected as class-section leaders by their classmates. These findings remained consistent even after accounting for factors like assertiveness, leadership motivation, English proficiency, and demographics.

Next, Lu conducted two vignette experiments, which provided causal evidence that East Asian American leader candidates, even with identical profiles to candidates of other ethnicities, were seen as less suitable for leadership roles due to perceived lower creativity.

Lu’s research carries profound implications. As demonstrated by the experiments, the stereotype that East Asians lack creativity is salient in the absence of actual differences in creativity. As a result, East Asians may be disadvantaged in the process of leader selection, to the detriment of organizations.

“Individuals and organizations should be mindful of notions that could exacerbate this creativity stereotype,” Lu says. “For example, the stereotype that East Asians are good at math may imply that they are uncreative 'quant nerds.' Some East Asians themselves may embrace this math stereotype and neglect its negative implications for perceived creativity.” Lu points out that former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang campaigned with the slogan acronym “MATH” (Make America Think Harder) and was criticized for potentially exacerbating stereotypes about East Asians.

Lu hopes that his research will prompt organizations to reconsider their emphasis on individual leader creativity. “Instead of focusing too much on a leader’s own creativity, organizations should consider encouraging leaders to nurture creativity in others,” says Lu. “A leader doesn’t need to be the primary source of creative ideas but should excel at eliciting creativity from others.”

For more info Casey Bayer Director, Media Relations (617) 253-0576 Patricia Favreau Associate Director (617) 895-6025