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These Koreans, they are just not logical, in fact they are mad, they are absolutely mad.​

These were the words of my former colleague in the summer of 2001. He made many similar exasperated statements during the 10 years that we worked together at a global South Korean company, and at the time I pretty much agreed with him.

We were having a coffee in the electronic goods manufacturing company in Northern Ireland, after a “meeting” with our Korean manager. It had not gone well, to say the least. It was not so much a meeting, more an opportunity for our manager to hone his global leadership skills - shouting till he went red in the face. In the meeting aftermath we would solve the immediate problem, which had led to us receiving our tirade, but there were many other underlying problems which would remain.

KoreanI had just been moved to a new department and given a new role as a quality engineer. My new manager set about explaining my responsibilities. “Every hour you control petrol check for all machines”, he said. Wow, that’s strange, I thought. The machines would need an oil check rather than a petrol check and anyway that would be the responsibility of a maintenance technician or machine operator. I asked him to repeat, and once again he said “petrol check”. After repeating it one more time I could see he was losing his patience and so I waited till later and asked my colleague what my new Korean boss had meant by “petrol check”. Initially he was as baffled as me, but soon realised he had been asking me to oversee the patrol check, i.e. a dimensional check of the machined parts to ensure they were within specification, carried out by the operators and measurement team (in other words, they were patrolling the quality).

At that time my manager, like many of the other Korean managers, struggled with the English Language. His lack of vocabulary and speaking confidence made it difficult for him to express himself while his pronunciation and stress were challenging for me and other listeners (for ‘petrol’ the stress is on the first syllable and for ‘patrol’ the stress is on the end). Up to that point I had been dealing only with locals, and so I had no idea how best to communicate with him, how to keep it short and simple, how to prepare the most effective way to get the message across before delivering it and this too made listening and understanding challenging for him. And like him, when the meaning was not clear I would repeat rather than rephrase.

Actually, this “meeting” was not an exception, though it was one of the worst. He shouted and became furious, not because of an explicit engineering or quality issue, but because he didn’t know how to communicate with us. There were huge intercultural communication gaps between the South Koreans and the Northern Irish.

When I joined the company there were more than 1000 employees, all of the senior management (around 30 in total) were Korean. And what was the preparation for the parties working together effectively in this multi-million pound project? Well, in terms of communication and culture, the Koreans learnt some English but basically we were left on our own to try and figure everything else out, to try and decipher each others' cultural codes. No one was aware of the extent that our lack of cultural awareness and appreciation was having on our company's success. We judged the Koreans according to our own, often subconscious, assumptions. A little education and training could have opened our minds and made us aware of our attitudes, feelings, values and behaviours; leading to us all having a better appreciation of our cultural differences.

So, what of these differences in our everyday work?

In addition to the core business communication skills and cultural skills required in meetings, e-mailing, presentations and negotiations there were many other areas where the different cultural preferences and styles presented themselves, such as task and performance management and decision making. Take decision making for example. For us local engineers, often what seemed like a relatively simple decision could take our Korean managers hours or even days to make while we were rarely given any idea on when we might expect an answer.

What cultural dimensions may have influenced the Koreans' longer decision making process?​

Koreans have a hierarchy orientation to power relationships: titles, positions and age determine one’s status and authority which should be recognised and respected by those of lower rank. There are many more layers of management and often more complex decisions go through a layered approval system and, of course, this can take time. Often, we engineers tried to speed up the process, help the Korean managers make their decision, try to discuss and negotiate but the Korean hierarchical culture meant they were uncomfortable with us challenging them and being so forthright. In hierarchical Korea they had had status, authority and respect; subordinates spoke only when they were asked to speak and they expected to be told. In Northern Ireland the majority favoured a much flatter organisational structure; our assumption was that everyone, regardless of their position, should have equal rights and social status. We didn’t wish to be disrespectful or rude we were just, for example, more comfortable offering personal opinions to our superiors. Across the cultural divide the Koreans may have translated this as disrespect, and possibly the easiest way for them to regain their authority, with the less important issues certainly, was by making us wait for their decisions.​

Koreans are risk averse: they are generally not that comfortable taking risks and this is another cultural dimension which may have influenced their decision making. It is often the case in a hierarchical and status-oriented culture like Korea that the cost of failure is significant and this may lead to more time being taken with decisions. Along with the hierarchy preference this risk averse nature also slowed down other areas of business, such as negotiations; often the Korean managers wanted to check and confirm with their seniors or with their colleagues in Korea. 

Finally, the South Koreans are one of the most collectivist nations in the world; they prefer acting as a group rather than as individuals; for them relationships are more important than task. Towards the end of the working day, around 5pm for the Northern Irish (the Koreans would continue until 8 or 9pm), the Koreans would all gather in an office for what looked like a chat, but looking back now it was more about bonding, building relationships and maybe trying to figure out something of the Northern Irish culture or thinking.

So, hierarchy, risk aversion​ and finally relationships over task may have accounted for what then appeared to me to be slow decision making.

And what of the business meetings we shared?

Of course, we knew nothing of the cultural dimensions that shaped the very different meeting styles in South Korea and Northern Ireland. We also had no idea of the good business communication skills needed to run successful meetings in our own countries and this meant that they didn’t always run as smoothly or effectively as they could have.​

Decision making meetings in areas such as project management were held, though, due to the Koreans’ preference for hierarchical decision making, they were less common between boss and subordinates. Additionally, these meetings could be a frustrating affair as often a decision wouldn’t be made until sometime after; the Koreans deferring to their superiors or colleagues in Korea.​

Information sharing meetings were attended by the Korean managers when the engineers had information to share, but their hierarchy orientation meant that them sharing their own information with the engineers was not always on the agenda.​

Brainstorming meetings weren’t encouraged, certainly not between the Korean managers and local engineers, which is a shame as the diversity, for example the different thinking styles; the Koreans preferring a deductive thinking style as opposed to the Northern Irish inductive, could have led to more creative ideas.​

Problem solving meetings were common; in fact they were too common and like all of the other types of meetings many things were missing which could have helped them run smoother and more effectively.​

We needed a little help. We really needed cultural training that would have equipped us with the awareness and skills to manage our everyday cross-cultural encounters, diversity training that would eliminate the risks and leverage our diversity, and ​inclusive leadership training that would improve our interaction and collaboration. We needed help with our meeting communication skills too. We needed training on how to successfully run and participate in meetings. Meetings which would be highly efficient, goal oriented and leave the meeting participants feeling energised and assured.

But if I could have added just one thing to these meetings I would have added a person, a meeting facilitator; someone who could have impartially clarified the meeting objectives, got agreement and given guidance on the agenda, process and ground rules; someone who would have asked questions, elicited information and summarized; someone who would have provided focus, kept the meeting on topic, encouraged opinions, contrasted ideas and viewpoints and ensured that relationships were developed and maintained; someone who could have stimulated discussion, encouraged and controlled participation, managed time and conflict; someone who would have considered the dynamics of language, culture, diversity and inclusiveness; someone who could have maintained momentum and guided the meeting to a successful outcome. Facilitating meetings is not an easy job, but it’s an essential one for those who wish to achieve their meeting objective, in good time and in good spirit, and it’s a lot easier to do it when you know how.

Looking back, it was a challenging but enjoyable 10 years. The misunderstandings and confusion could have been dealt with through a little education and training. It was a great experience for me, I learnt a lot from my Korean managers and there were many great times. We benefited from the great Korean trait of bonding through relationship building, we inadvertently increased our awareness of some of the visual components of culture too; together we ate, drank and travelled; we played football and golf and of course we worked and laughed together. We pulled together most effectively when we built a cultural understanding and appreciation through dialogue.

The Koreans weren’t mad, they were just different.

Written by John Graham; Managing Director, Consultant and Trainer at Link Global Business Solutions.

Having worked as an engineer with a global South Korean company in his home country of Northern Ireland, he recently teamed up with Koreans again, this time on their home soil, in Seoul, South Korea. There, he provided global leadership training solutions in areas such as cultural awareness and holding successful meetings. Now, based in Hungary, John provides global leadership training solutions for individuals and companies in the areas of English Language, Business Communication Skills, Intercultural Skills and Inclusive Leadership.


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