[Viewpoint] Korea workplace needs softening

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[Viewpoint] Korea workplace needs softening

It is hard to overstate the importance of sound internal communication in the workplace.

Smooth, effective communication instills solidarity, creates an atmosphere for innovation based on mutual understanding and cooperation, builds trust between colleagues and for the organization as a whole, and raises employees’ job satisfaction and loyalty.

In East Asia, communication is traditionally top-down; the boss at all levels makes decisions with little or no discussion, while information is not readily shared.

Obviously, the hierarchical social structures and cultural norms reinforce this system.

Nevertheless, there is now a growing recognition that the workplace would be better served if those norms are softened, that a freer flow of ideas and opinions is essential to navigating a more and more complex business environment.

Some Korean companies get it. They have made a concerted effort to shift from the top-down system. Others say they recognize the value of input from employees but remain slow to change quickly or effectively enough.

Workplace communication can be categorized in three ways: 1) work-related, such as meting out tasks and information sharing; 2) creative, generating new ideas by offering a vision and collaboration; and 3) emotional, prioritizing mutual understanding, personal interaction and relations between individuals.

To gauge how well Korean companies behave in the categories of communication, Samsung Economic Research Institute conducted a survey and interviews with 935 individuals from management and employee ranks.

The results indicate communication is highly constrained and regimented.

Both CEOs and employees realized the importance of communication within an organization but two-thirds of employee respondents said that they don’t think they have smooth communication at their workplace.

Quantifying this, Korean companies scored 54 out of 100. The three types of communication all received low evaluations. Work-related communication scored 54; creative communication, 55; and emotional communication, 53.

A top-down chain of command, departmental and individual egotism, excessive emphasis on short-term results and indifference to individual needs were the obstacles most named in the survey.

In questions of problems of work-related communication, respondents blamed their bosses’ inadequate work-related information sharing.

Other problems were vague work directions, one-sided communication, insufficient feedback from bosses at reporting and bosses ignoring the ideas of subordinates.

Of particular note, CEOs as well as employees said meetings dominated by bosses without any real discussion was one of the worst practices in Korean corporate culture.

In creative communication, information sharing and cooperation between departments was viewed negatively at 49. In terms of emotional communication, it was found that management pays little attention to worker difficulties and a weak determination to resolve their problems. Encouragement and compliments by leaders are seen as insufficient.

Respondents also said that a lack of creative suggestions is due to the heavy burden placed on the person who made the suggestion.

In Korean workplaces, if an employee’s proposal is approved, he or she has to bear full responsibility in implementing it. A question pertaining to an ease in informing management about problems and difficulties received the lowest score at 45.

To improve internal communication and maximize the growth potential of a company, every level of a workplace needs to be addressed.

The following suggestions are ways that the Samsung Economic Research Institute has found that company bosses can improve the work environment, instilling a more humane atmosphere:

Minimize communication to a core message. Accentuate positive feedback. Present a mutual goal to tackle departmental egotism. Listen and make cautious judgments. Learn about employees’ difficulties. Spread positive emotion with compliments and encouragement.

If employees hear nothing but criticism from management, positive emotion diminishes, and that eventually has a negative effect on an organization’s performance. Compliments and encouragement inspire better work.

*The writer is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute. Visit www.seriworld.org for more SERI reports.


By Eom Dong-wook
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