For westerners this may be the first time working with a Korea team. This opportunity brings with it the need to better understand their new partner’s culture, workplace norms and expectations.
In most cases, the western team will be interacting with a Korean expatriate team. Some of the expatriates will hold a line managerial position with day-to-day responsibilities alongside western managers, while others will hold key management C-level positions, such as CEO, COO, or CFO. In many, if not most, cases these expats may operate as a “shadow management” with considerable oversight of local operations.
With the best of intentions, the expats will look to build strong collaboration and teamwork and advocate less a sense of us and them. However, they do bring with them Korean work norms that can conflict with western work-life balance and western ways of working.
More so, Korean teams may make seemingly one-sided decisions with the best interest of the company in mind but without consulting local teams causing mistrust.
A solid training program followed by on-going support can address differences, such as sharing work styles, hierarchy, and comfort levels, plus providing work-arounds.
2. What are some typical issues that arise, especially without training?
As with all individuals, no two of us are alike –and the same goes for westerners and Koreans... Each has his or her unique strengths, skills, experiences and personalities.
That said, expecting local teams to simply "get it" without support and training seldom works. Even if a better understanding of the work culture eventually occurs over time, this “learn as you go” approach we see as costly, contributes to stress, poor productivity and even employee turnover.
3. Can you cite an example in which there were misunderstandings resulting in mistrust, loss of time, resources, and profits?
A challenge I was recently asked to address was the intervention by the expatriate partners in decisions that are best handled by local western teams.
Probing the issue, I learned that based on extensive experience in the market and industry, local western management felt these decisions were often short-sighted, reactive and not aligned with their well thought-out strategy.
Of even greater concern were decisions that were one-sided and not a result of collaboration. In any case, local management felt their input and expertise were being marginalized. As pressure to meet “Sales Targets” had grown, so, too, we saw increased intervention by the expatriate teams.
In this case, I worked with the western teams to provide some proven workarounds—in particular, tempering the Korean teams’ pressing for immediate results.
Specifically, I shared 10 steps.
1. Foremost, to soften the inclination to jump into implementing a plan with hopes of producing immediate results, look to minimize the anxiety for both the local Korean team and the headquarters team. Show confidence that the challenge can be overcome.
2. Acknowledge your team’s high engagement and assure the Korean teams that action will be taken promptly.
3. As a next step upon receiving a directive from Korea, have an informal discussion with local Korean teams to brief them on action steps that enable the team to work through what needs to be explored more deeply.
4. Follow up with email correspondence confirming the verbal discussion.
5. Allow a day or two for the Korean team to review. In many cases the Asian teams are not familiar with local practices and the vocabulary used to describe Western technical nuances.
The local teams may also want to report back to Korea on progress. HQ leadership are ultimately responsible, so the better informed they are, the more trust they will have in local teams—Korean and Western—that the project will progress.
6. Because of time differences, remember you may not receive immediate feedback.
7. Conducting informal daily updates to the Korean teams and sharing the steps undertaken with the local Koreans can also be helpful.
8. Even better is reporting positive accomplishments in your review process.
9. It is particularly important to address the potential trade-offs and risks as action steps leading to solutions and assuring the team that these steps will not impede the project and may, in fact, avoid costly setbacks.
10. Finally, having said all this, maintaining trust through strong relationships between the Korean and Western local organizations is essential.
4. What have Koreans told you about Americans? Work habits, commitment, etc.
If you ask Korean expats how they perceive Americans and westerners in general, responses would be very positive and respectful, especially toward western work ethics and work habits. Koreans see great value in American and western teams providing them with new insights and perspectives, as well as best practices.
5. What might be covered in such training?
I see the training as two fold -- 1) providing teams with an understanding of the Korean partner’s history, heritage, trends and popular culture and 2) looking at the Korean workplace and its norms, practices, and expectations.
Above all I feel a best practice is to share similarities and shared values when possible, along with instilling an awareness of and respect for cultural differences.
Addressing the team’s questions and concerns is also vital with issues, such as work-life balance, safety and quality processes and procedures and the overall expectations of Korean partners.
6. Anything else?
To conclude, the need for cross-cultural training programs for local employees and management is a high priority.
The assumption that local and expatriate teams can bridge cultural gaps through practical on–the–job experience might work with those few highly intuitive individuals with the exceptional ability to assimilate cultures.
What stands out in numerous studies, however, is the need for ongoing multicultural training, that can successfully impact people, especially those who need to quickly adapt to new or changing business culture and values, while fostering sensitivity and teamwork among all members of the company.
Finally, I would add that I have found a tiered service model - training, mentoring and on-going strategic support -- to be the most effective approach for an organization.