What Amy Chua Teaches Us About Work
Last weekend, I (like many Wall Street Journal subscribers) read Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” The article, an excerpt from Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has raised a storm of mixed opinions – some supportive, others downright angry. What’s interesting to me is not so much the debate over Chua’s ‘extreme parenting’ techniques, but rather, the questions that she raises about motivation and excellence – issues that have equal relevance in the boardroom and the playroom. How can parents and managers get the best from the people around them? What’s the most effective way to motivate excellence?
While the most inflammatory part of Chua’s article is about her uncompromisingly high standards – ie., Chua’s refusal to accept any grade of less than an ‘A’ from her kids and her use of the word ‘garbage’ to refer to her young daughter—several important messages in the piece have gotten far less attention. “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it,” writes Chua. “To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it’s crucial to override their preferences.”
Like childhood achievement, workplace proficiency requires hard work. Achivement thrives in environments that foster feedback and accountability.
My first job out of graduate school (where I studied comparative literature) was as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. After a brief orientation period, I was given a financial valuation model to complete – a task that was far outside my comfort zone as a liberal arts grad. When I asked for help, my manager told me ‘he was sure I’d figure out how to get the model working by morning.’ It was a tough 24 hours. But, in the end, I learned two important lessons. First, there are wonderful financial education materials available online. Second, I’m capable of more than I thought I was.
Of course, most of us aren’t asked to tackle unfamiliar tasks on a routine basis. Instead, we’re encouraged to acquire new skills on a more gradual basis. In many cases, this approach reflects a commitment to on-the-job-training and mentorship. But every once-in-a- while, it reflects a shortage of respect.
“Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them,” Chua notes. And, high-performance cultures believe their employees are capable of performing the stretch-goals they set for them. Chua suggests that you can hold people to very high standards without damaging their self-esteem if you respect them – and demonstrate that you believe in their ability to achieve. Recounting a moment from her own childhood when her father insulted her, Chua says: “[my father’s name-calling] didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me.”
Amy Chua’s book is likely to provoke heated discussions in book groups and parenting circles around the country. She outlines the pros and cons of two different motivational models and argues that neither is beyond reproach.
Equally important, Chua reminds all of us – westerners and easterners, parents and singles – that self-esteem, respect and achievement are inextricably linked. In the end, the best way to inspire achievement and performance is to (1) set high standards; (2) hold people accountable and (3) demonstrate support and respect.
What (if anything) can those of us in the communication field (i.e., internal communication, communication strategy, external communication) learn from Chua about motivation and behavior?