Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Everything Korea, April 4 Episode: Korean Workplace Woes

A recent Korean workplace survey discovered that more than nine out of 10 Korean workers have not been entirely honest, especially with their bosses.

The survey asked where and when they avoid the telling the truth in day-to-day work and the most frequent answer was "in front of the boss."
More so, the study uncovered this meant saying “Yes” to their boss’ requests, even when they were unreasonable.
Asked how they felt after, 46.15 percent surveyed said, "The situation left me no other choices."
Digging deeper...
Being less than truthful does have repercussions for those working in Korean companies, both in Korea and for their overseas operation. In many cases, working level teams have deep insights into the challenges and reality of the business. In a transparent work environment answering truthfully is an expectation as well as sharing the good or bad.  Saying “Yes” when they know it can impact operations forces many Korean to make a decision they know is not in the best interest of the company.  Seeing no recourse they can only hope for a positive outcome.  
So where’s the impasse?
From a cultural perspective, for Korean saying “No” to any senior, family or work, is at the core very difficult.  More so, with fears of losing their job and/ or being seen as not being a team player many as noted above see no options other than saying “Yes.”
In fact, I have been told its rare for someone in the Korean workplace to be fired, even if they make a mistake, when they have been long seen as positive and supportive of leadership—in contrast to workers who push back or are seen as less than supportive.
In fact, there are alternatives when confronted with a situation where ones does not agree or cannot answer with “Yes.” The best option is in many cases to say nothing—and hope the senior can read facial expression.
We call this ability “nunchi” and more specifically it is a non-verbal tool for looking into the eyes for insights.  As Koreans tend to have rather stoic and solemn faces in business situations, eye contact in contrast can convey emotional messages.
Two personal example of “nunchi.”
The first occurred many years ago when I working with a senior Korean.  He asked why I was not using a certain title. Although I had been informed of the promotion, I had yet (after some months) received a formal notification. Now knowing the senior was the one who’s responsibility to issue the document, and instead of saying “No” I had not received, I stood silent.  He stared deeply at me for a moment, then realized he had failed to send the notification, and nodded. A few days later the formal document arrived in the mail. 
The second example arose when meeting with Korean leadership.  I was questioned on why I had not confirmed attending an upcoming major organizational event.  A little puzzled and having no knowledge of the event, I went on to explain I had yet to received any correspondence. I could tell by the Korean senior’s first reaction, his thought was if I was telling the truth, and if in fact I had received the announcement. Starring at me for a moment—eye to eye, he then smiled and hoped I could attend with such late notice. To this day, I vividly recall the deep gaze into my eyes in this first hand experience into “nunchi.”
 One more alternative…
"Soju bomb"
In addition to seniors skilled in reading non-verbal signals of their team, after hours meetings do provide a venue for teams to share their concerns in a less stressful and informal setting—more so after a few rounds of drinks.  In many cases, seniors recognize their teams may be less than truthful in the workplace out of fear of reprisal or not being seen as a team player.  Wise leaders leverage alcohol’s effect in probing for their teams true feeling on matters… something I have witnessed first-hand on a number of occasions.

Connecting Deeper

For questions raised in this commentary, Stacey, my personal assistant atstacey@koreabcw.com can coordinate a time for us to chat by phone or handle by email.

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