Originally published on Hub of Sparkle
My time working in a Korean company has been a roller coaster. Some days are great, and others are miserable. However, every single one of them has been educational.
I’ve been working at a desk in a field of cubicles for about two years now and, though I’m far from an expert, I do believe I’ve learned a few things about the life of a foreigner working in the lower levels of a Korean company, so I thought I’d share by offering my ten principles of working in/with a Korean corporation without going insane (in no particular order):
- Draw your line and stick to it. Don’t stay late unless overtime pay is on the table. Know for yourself what areas you’re willing to compromise on, and where you have to draw the line. Once your coworkers and managers know your boundaries, they’ll be happy to respect them, as long as you’re nice about it (see #6)
- The first answer is not the final answer.
When it comes to negotiations and conflict resolution, the manager’s first instinct is going to be to lower your expectations. Your chain of command fully understands that you are not Korean and are subject to a different set of rules that the rest of the employees.The problem, I’ve found, is that as understanding as the manager may be, he/she knows full well how the director would react if they were to voice the issue on their own behalf to the higher-ups.
My Korean managers have always sought, first, to lower expectations. This, in turn, just infuriates me further. If you’re a Korean manager reading this, you should know that the #1 thing you can do is to simply make your expat employee feel HEARD. They understand fully that you have a chain of command and we know that we sometimes make special requests that are highly unusual. But to us, it’s not unusual at all to speak frankly with your direct supervisor (see #3). We don’t expect you to solve this problem or commit to a course of action right then and there. We just want to feel like you’re listening to us and are aware of the issue.
- The final answer is not the final answer
Contracts in Korea do not mean the same thing as they do in the west. Whipping out your contract when the boss asks you to do something above and beyond is not the best way to handle a situation. A better approach is to appeal to precedent and employ my fool-proof method of conflict resolution (see #8).This can also play out in other situations. A project that has gotten the green light and you’re busy working on may be abruptly canned without warning.
Koreans aversion to officialdom (signing contracts, paper trails, etc), on a bad day, seems like they’re just trying to reserve the right to reneg at any time. On a good day I recognize that it wasn’t so long ago that appealing to authorities, or, ‘the law’ in Korea meant going to officials of the dictatorship meaning that, in a way, you were betraying your brethren by appealing to a system for help that ultimately exists to oppress your people.
- Understand and consider the ‘Korean way’ of dissenting. Understand the rules, then, and only then, break them.If nothing else, consider this an exercise in cultural awareness. You’ve got to learn to judge when the Korean way is going to serve your purposes the most, and when it’s time to revert to metaphorical gunslinging.
Westerners know how to approach a conflict straight on, speak frankly and logically, and not back down, all while not taking anything personally. We’re not afraid to go directly to what we see as being the source of the problem. Converesly, we respect the ability in others to face down an opponent in a tough negotiation and then shake hands and smile after.
When raising issues, Koreans tend to beat around the bush, but it is not seen that way. Rather, my Korean colleagues have always gone through intermediaries to get their complaints known.
I actually think there is some wisdom to this approach. This way you can preserve the relationship with the higher-ups and everybody has plenty of time to consider their responses to issues that arrive, without the risk of saying something you might regret. We like to say, ‘it’s just business,’ but how many of us can honestly say we don’t harbor secret grudges against out western bosses that shoot us down?
I’m not saying this is a perfect system at all, and a clever boss can certainly manipulate the system to ensure that your complaint falls on deaf ears. All I’m saying is, I think I have an inkling of an understanding of why things play out this way.
- Never be the first to compromise.
This is mostly true in the beginning stages of your employment with a new company. The company is probably going to push you to see how much ‘like a Korean’ they can get you to act. Be aware that working ‘like a Korean’ means deferring to the chain of command for all decisions and always having a smile on your face. It’s a good strategy to, after the company does make the first compromise, offer a surprisingly substantial compromise on your own. This gives positive reinforcement for the company to go your way in the future.
- Reward desirable behavior; flat-out ignore the undesirable.
Truly an extension of #4, but worth noting on it’s own. Although this is the golden rule of ethical animal training, what are humans but big animals ourselves? I have taken this so far as to resolve a last-minute hang-up in a contract negotiation. We’d already agreed on all the contract terms, and I was simply taking a day to read over the contract before I signed it, when I got word that HR had a nit-picky protest about one of the conditions, and wanted to take off a significant portion of my vacation days. I was pissed, but after cooling off, I just took out the contract, signed it, and took it to the director. I put it on his desk and said with a smile, ‘It’s a done deal. All you have to do is sign it.’He signed. Faced with the prospect of going back to the drawing board and starting negotiations from the beginning, going back to the previous agreement is hard to pass up. JFK did something similar to solve the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Take a lesson from Hapkido.
A softer approach is always advised when dealing with your managers, coworkers, and directors. A smile will always get you farther than getting upset. Before you open your big stupid mouth, even if you think the company is trying to screw you over, step back, think it over, and figure out how to frame your problem in a constructive way. Hapkido students learn to counter force with leverage, so that the opponent’s own force turns out to be their demise. Learn this lesson well.
- My go-to method of conflict resolution
To put it simply, when I need something from my company, the first words out of my mouth are, “Here’s the problem I’m dealing with…” I then outline the reasons leading up to my request.Then I say, “I hope you can help me find a solution to this problem. The way I see it, we have to either… or we could try…” This presents two options, and if I’m really hoping for one of the options, then I’ll set one up as kind of a ’straw man’ that has glaring disadvantages, and I am full well the company will not pick it.
This actually employs the ‘Korean way’ of thinking. When a Korean embarks on an attempt at persuasion, they start with all the details and lead up to the main point. Sometimes they won’t even state the main point, hoping that you can infer the conclusion for yourself.
You can turn this all on it’s head by using the methods against your superiors, and they may actually appreciate you for framing the issue in this way, rather than a more direct, western, approach.
- Give your company some credit
I have, on a few occasions, gone too far in my low expectations of the company. I’ve finally learned not to assume the worst case scenario when I hear the answer to my proposal or rumors about some new company policy. In fact, I find that things usually pan out in my favor and that people are pretty cool about it over all. The problem is in the cultural differences and communication issues at the front end. Your time at the company is going to be much more productive professionally as well as personally if you step back a little and don’t take anything too seriously, at least until there is more information on the table.
- The chain of command needs time to make a decision.
Countless times, I have heard about some big new project that I’m going to be assigned to, only to never hear about it again. When people start talking, take it to mean that it is merely an idea under consideration.Western business people in Korea are well aware of the importance of the company dinners and the after-hours drinking parties (…and the after hours.. uh.. other stuff…). What is happening is your Korean counterparts are bonding and becoming comfortable with you while they consider the deal.
Also, you may have waited three months for their deliberations on your proposal, but when you finally get the go-ahead on it, they expect it to all be finished on a ridiculously short timeline. I mean, like, NOW. The best defense against this is to be clear up-front about the necessary timeline, giving reminders that the project is going to take some time to get going.
Personally, I think this is the biggest reason Korean employees burnout, get sick after months of sleep deprivation, and suddenly change jobs without warning.
I have found it necessary to regularly send emails asking for a ’status update.’ Otherwise, these long decision times makes it very easy and convenient to kill an issue without actually having to do the ugly business of informing the interested parties.
Don’t take it personally. I can’t even count the number of times a project has been nixed or deemed ‘finished’ and no one bothered to tell me, even if I would have been happy to hear the news.
These are all true in my own, limited, experience. How about yours? Anything to add to the list?