Shall we eat, or get down to business?

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Shall we eat, or get down to business?


As an instructor for a cultural awareness workshop at the Standard Chartered First Bank Korea, Sangmee Bak had to come up with a set of common English expressions that Koreans use, and explain their hidden messages to foreign employees.
The workshop is designed to help the company’s foreign employees develop a better understanding about the etiquette of business in Korean culture.
Meanwhile for Korean staff, the company has recently hired R Global Net, a firm that designs special workshops to enhance business communication skills for those taking an overseas posting. It recently produced a video that consists of scenarios dealing with common conflicts and misunderstandings that arise in a multinational firm. The video is a telling reflection of corporate customs in Korea.
A foreign executive in one skit demands an explanation for the poor quality of a report. What he gets from a Korean subordinate is an apology without an actual reason. The Korean employee is restrained in his explanation to his senior, as a sign of obedience and humility, but the boss interprets the employee’s behavior as a sign of negligence. In reality the problem was that the request for the report had been given at short notice.
In another sketch, a Korean distributor wants to take his British buyer out for a meal before their business meeting to smooth their working relationship, but the foreigner is frustrated because his Korean partner does not get straight down to business.
“Korea is unique in that the hierarchy of the social and business system plays an important role in who speaks when and what they say in a meeting,” says Mark Daldorf, the head of organizational learning at Standard Chartered. “This is not the same in many other countries and it is a challenge for foreigners to adjust.”
The workshop at Standard Chartered is part of an increasing effort at many multinational firms in Korea to reduce the cultural gap that often hampers communication among its staff members. The phenomenon also reflects complaints among foreign investors who say it is difficult to negotiate with their Korean partners.
Dr. Rosalie Tung, a business professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, observed in her paper that many American partners saw Koreans as “illogical” in their decision-making processes.
“Americans felt that the Koreans tended to focus on trivial or emotional matters rather than on the issues that were the subject of the negotiation,” she writes. “Many of the American executives who had experience as managers in other parts of East Asia cited the difference in attitudes and value systems as factors contributing to the difficulty of operating in Korea.”
Aside from workshops and language classes held at Standard Chartered, the company has recently produced a guide for all staff with tools and tips on how to communicate in a multi-language environment in meetings, e-mails and conference calls.
Superficially, the language barrier is a prominent factor in disrupting cross-cultural communication. But Bak, a professor of cultural anthropology at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, explains that the more critical barrier to good communication exists because of the difference in attitudes and cultural manners between Korea and the rest of the world.
“There is a tendency, even among the Koreans who have a fluent command of English, to use indirect expressions or passive statements to make themselves look humble,” she says.
Bak’s workshop teaches the corporate mindset of Korean employees to foreigners (and their spouses) at Standard Chartered. For example, an American student in her class recently shared an episode from a company workshop in which a Korean employee objected to the company’s mandate to make money for its shareholders. The employee said that the company’s efforts should be focused on helping the national economy.
“I think some Koreans employed by a multinational firms have a sense of guilt about their careers,” said Bak. “They think they are being unpatriotic because their work helps foreign investors.”
Richard Molnar, the CEO of R Global Net, who produced the video for Standard Chartered, explains that their workshop serves to bridge the gap between the expectations of foreign executives and Koreans who work for multinational firms.
“Multinational corporations today are operating across a wide range of geographical areas and belief systems,” he says. “To align these employees under one set of corporate values has become a major headache for corporations. People don’t want to let go of their customs and usual way of doing things. Our vision grew from discussions with business leaders in Korea as well as our own experience teaching English language programs at universities in Korea. We decided to develop the training program, because we saw a need for improved cultural awareness and critical thinking from all sides, Western and Eastern.”
Molnar, who has worked for many companies in Korea including Renault Samsung Motors, Honeywell and Kyobo Life, observes that a major source of misunderstanding is the way Korean managers give orders to their staff based on a top-down management structure and closed boardroom doors.
“Corporate Koreans are used to receiving direct, militaristic orders,” he says. “In the West, however, orders often come indirectly, in the form of a question. This can be very confusing for Koreans.”
Such sentiments are shared among the expatriates outside the business sector, like Shad Morris, a professor at the Sungkyunkwan-MIT MBA , a 16-months MBA program that works with the MIT Sloan School of Management in the United States. He finds that Korean students need to be trained in “non-traditional work settings” in order to work more closely with foreign companies.
Indeed that’s the reason why Sungkyunkwan and an increasing number of MBA programs at Korean universities have adopted academic systems based on those found in English-speaking countries, with foreign professors and a full curriculum taught in English.
“Korean students are some of the brightest in the world and I believe that many global firms recognize this,” he says. “However they must be able to develop critical thinking skills that allow them to stand up to a superior or client and tell them when they are wrong and that a different approach may add more value. They must also understand the importance of business ethics in the decisions they make and depend less on what their supervisors say.”
That’s also a lesson learned by Korean students who have some Western exposure.
“Korean students identify with each other as a group,” says Hong Ju-yeon, who went to the University of Minnesota. “Foreign students are more individual. So when we work on a group project there is a natural misunderstanding, because the foreign students give off an impression that they are excluding Korean students.”
Molnar adds that cultural approaches to business solutions may vary in each culture, but there are universal concepts like “efficiency, transparency, critical thinking, good communication and good customer service.” He believes Korea lags behind in these areas.
Bak observes that Koreans tend to have special difficulty coping with foreign colleagues, because everybody has been stressing the notion of “homogenous ethnicity” during the last millennium.
“An effort to understand another culture is the way to live more happily in the changing state of world politics,” she says. “In fact that’s the economic reality today.”
With the first round of negotiations for a free trade agreement between Korea and the European Union beginning this week, the search for solutions to these problems is bound to intensify. Last year European companies invested more than $44 billion in Korea and they don’t want their investments held back by cultural barriers.
Innovative programs are being developed. JR Partners is a Seoul-based company that specializes in helping Koreans and foreigners understand each other, especially in Korean companies that have foreign shareholders, or do a great deal of business with overseas corporations.
They have developed a program to enhance cross-cultural understanding that’s based on experiencing European opera, wine and food. Called “Leadership through Creativity” it will teach Korean executives how to deal with their Western business contacts through a series of seminars on Western art and cuisine. According to the company’s brochure, participants “experience a wide range of Western culture and, by the end of the course, they should be much more fluent in Western approaches to life and business.”

By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer []
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