International Management Guides

International Management Guides

Designed specifically for the traveling manager, these short, sharp guides to being a manager in a foreign country offer invaluable insights and practical tips.

Intercultural Management - South Korea

Being a Manager in South Korea

Management Guide South Korea

To ensure successful cross cultural management in South Korea, you need be aware of the strict protocols and rituals that exist. In business it is important to maintain a degree of formality. Older South Koreans and those in senior positions should be treated with respect and deference.

This is a culture that respects hierarchy as can be seen in the use of the word "sonsaengnim", which means "respected person" that is frequently used when addressing someone of a higher stature.

A South Korean businessperson will want to know your name and which company you represent. If your company has not done business in South Korea in the past, it is a good idea to send information concerning your company prior to the first meeting.


The Role of a Manager

When managing in South Korea, cross cultural management will be more successful if you bear in mind that each person has a very distinct role within the organization, and maintaining that role helps to keep order.

In South Korea, as in other hierarchical societies, managers may take a somewhat paternalistic attitude to their employees. They may demonstrate a concern for employees that goes beyond the workplace and strictly professional concerns.

Approach to Change

South Korea’s intercultural adaptability and readiness for change is medium. This means that change is difficult to bring about. Projects will need to be carefully analyzed every step of the way to assure that all the risks have been assessed and understood.

Failure in South Korea causes a long-term loss of confidence by the individual as well as by others. Because of this attitude, intercultural sensitivity is going to be required, especially when conducting group meetings and discussing contributions made my participating individuals.

Approach to Time and Priorities

South Korea is a fluid time culture, and as is the case with many fluid time cultures, it is also very relationship-oriented. People in South Korea will not want to upset others in order to force adherence to a deadline, however, global and intercultural expansion means that some managers may have a greater appreciation of the need to enforce timescales and as such, agreed deadlines are more likely to be met.

Decision Making

Most executives’ offices are not on the same floor as their staffs’. Seniority is equated with rank and authority, and demands strict conformity to a meticulously prescribed protocol. At the same time, South Koreans are amenable to adopting western concepts of management.

Since social class is important to the culture, it is nearly impossible for a lower class person to supervise a person from a higher class. Intercultural sensitivity is essential as it is considered a serious breach of etiquette to put a young person in charge of older workers. Employees expect companies, and their managers, to be paternalistic.

Boss or Team Player?

Management styles are a combination of Confucianism and western behavior, depending upon the person’s education and background.

Since this is a hierarchical culture, most decisions are made at the top and then given to the employees to implement. Personal opinions and criticism are suppressed and the team generally follows the ideas of the more senior members of the team. Disagreements are voiced privately and rarely, if ever, in public.

Communication and Negotiation Styles

Personal relationships are required for successful business relationships. The initial meeting will be used to develop a rapport rather than discuss business. Find out who will be represented on the negotiating team and try to bring team members who will be a good match of rank, skill, and perspective. In the beginning of your relationship, keep a friendly, but not overly familiar tone. Decision-making is a slow process. Be patient. It may take several trips to bring a contract to completion.

South Koreans can be non-confrontational and hesitate to give an overt "no" response to a question. Likewise, a "yes" may not be an affirmative response. Begin with a price that leaves room for negotiation and find areas in your position where you can be flexible.

Do not include triangles in your presentation or visual aids as they have a negative connotation. Do not use high-pressure sales tactics. South Koreans do not like detailed contracts. They prefer sufficient flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances.