South Korea Management Style

Managers expect that their instructions will be obeyed and this expectation of obedience is usually fulfilled.

Confucianism stresses obedience and loyalty and this manifests itself strongly in the manager/subordinate relationship. It is useful to think of the manager as a father who, in return for loyalty, respect and obedience gives the subordinate support and help at all times.

Although leadership is hierarchical and paternalistic, it is also infused with the Korean concept of inwha, which emphasises the harmony necessary between people of equal rank and standing. Thus, it is important that group situations are characterised by lack of confrontation and blame. The good manager spends a great deal of time and effort ensuring that his team has a good working relationship and that all members feel fully integrated.

The Koreans also employ a process of consensus decision-making in certain situations, which is similar to the system of nemawashi found in Japan. This system ensures that the group feels involved in the decision whilst ensuring that the manager can still maintain an influence over the outcome.

Managers are expected to take a holistic interest in their subordinates and this necessitates greater involvement in many more areas of personal life than would be expected in Anglo-Saxon countries where work and private are very strongly separated.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in South Korea

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

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In little over half a century (since the end of Korean War), South Korea has managed to transform itself from a deeply impoverished nation to one of the world’s leading economies. It achieved this whilst at the same time restricting Direct Foreign Investment (FDI) and with a strongly interventionist government which dictated policy and goal-setting to local industry. Over the same period, it moved from being a follower of product development to a global leader of innovation. And this has massively improved the overall affluence of its citizens.

How did South Korea succeed where so many other countries have tried and failed? What does South Korea have which other countries lack? In a word, the answer is culture. South Korea is steeped in key Confucian attitudes which have enabled this economic miracle to occur. Confucianism extols the virtues of education; South Korea’s approach to education is universally lauded and endlessly studied. Confucianism places emphasis on frugality and loyalty; hard work and acceptance of temporary hardship, bringing their own rewards over time.

If you are thinking of doing business in South Korea (and you really should be), then one of the key elements of successful engagement with South Korean counterparts and potential partners must be linked to gaining a better understanding of South Korean business culture. If you don’t understand how companies are structured locally, how do you know who you should be speaking to? If you are not aware that South Korea is group-oriented in its approach, how can you understand the local decision-making process?

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of South Korean business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips