Do you know your team in Korea?


Korea is the bandwidth capital of the world, with the government’s goal of 1 Gbps in 2012. Koreans are accustomed to high speed internet and mobile communication.

Korea is the bandwidth capital of the world, with the government’s goal of 1 Gbps in 2012. Koreans are accustomed to high speed internet and mobile communication.

“Samsung was in another crunch and as usual expecting us to do miracles to make their requests happen — no matter what!”

David, a U.S. manager, who had been working with Samsung for a several months, continued, “We cannot jump bridges for this customer. We should do all that we can do, but when we hit a wall there is not much else we can do.” His co-worker at the Seoul office had a different perspective, “Call me Friday night—your time –, we must have the 100 circuit boards.” Despite it being 6:00am on a Saturday morning for Mina Cho, she was at her office and dedicated to a resolution of this situation With only a minimal acquaintance, neither employee understood the other’s resistance, and as a result, they were headed for a communication breakdown. Collaboration is possible if …

Collaboration is possible if David understands that today’s South Korea, is an economic powerhouse and his counterpart works in a highly accelerated export-fueled economy that demands employee dedication and overcoming insurmountable odds.  Sometimes called “Miracle on the Han River”, Seoul has experienced rapid industrialization, technological achievement, rapid urbanization and exponential rise in living standards, Korea has miraculously transformed itself from the ashes of the Korean War to a wealthy globally influential trillion-dollar economy.  Multinational conglomerates, chaebol, wield great power, and Samsung is #1 among these giants.

With cultural insight, David will understand Korean business, see how his Korean counterpart is receiving pressure from management to show results (no excuses!) and the role he can play from the U.S. The following are practical tips that can help you work virtually or face-to-face with Koreans to achieve successful project outcomes.

  1. Who’s Who? – Confirming organizational structure, the need for ‘heirarchy’. Provide names and titles of those attending the meeting. It’s helpful to match organizational structure (assistant manager, manager, section manager, director, VP) to the Korean side. Send your list of team members, and request that the Koreans fill in their counterparts. Be aware of the relationships among the Koreans you’re dealing with, as age and position are highly respected.
  2. Korea, Inc. – There is a collective “will” of Korea to win, a sense that “it’s our turn now” and ambitious national sacrifices are made for progress. Profit motive and national pride are critical outcomes for Koreans.  Demonstrating that you care about Korea’s success, are aligned with the government and client’s strategic plans, and are willing to give them the best “bottom line” deal will factor into building trust with Koreans.
  3. Negotiations – In negotiations, Koreans will bargain long and hard. They will expect concessions on your part.
  4. Use Cultural Intelligence: Kibun and nunchi – For Koreans, the concept of kibun is his or her pride, mood, or state of mind. It is sometimes related to the Asian concept of “face” and interpersonal harmony. You protect kibun when you avoid public disagreement, confrontation, and embarassment.  Koreans tend to communicate indirectly, in a high context style, so it’s often necessary to read between the lines (using nunchi). To keep good kibun, a Korean may use the “elastic truth”, relaying only good news, saying what they think you want to hear, or conveying “no” with a hesitant ‘yes’. Clarify using open questions to probe what they will do next. Talk 1-on-1 (vs. group) and use break-out sessions in meetings to gather opinions.
  5. Get Introductions – You must be properly introduced by a respected mutual friend before communication can take place. Seek university allumi connecitons, shared professional accreditations, and professional networking (such as LinkedIn, though it is not as widely used in Korea as in the U.S.).
  6. Build Rapport – Before meeting, check that you are sending the right person: experience and rank should match the Korean counterpart. Introductions start with the exchange of business cards.  Next, a good track record and credentials will build their trust in your competence. Koreans respect higher education, universities with name value, and professional accreditations, so mentioning these builds credibility. Next, during after-hours eating and drinking (and karaoke), find commonalities to cement the bond:  food, soju, family, children’s education, technology, interest in Korea ….
  7. Build Affiliation – Build strong relationships that result in achieving common goals.  To be viewed as “insiders” (on the same team) by the highly collectivist Koreans requires that you invest time and effort, on and off the clock, building connections with the Korean team.  Create a shared identity, team name, project logo, color, t-shirt, pin, etc.; or identify a common adversary to rally behind to build affiliation.
  8. Technology is your Friend – Korea is the bandwidth capital of the world, and with the government’s 2012 objective of 1 Gbps bandwidth, Koreans are used to fast internet and mobile communication. Use IM/SMS texting for quick exchanges. Use frequent short phone calls and video calls.
  9. Introduce your Back-up Person Early – Korea leads OECD countries in refusing to take time off! They may become irritated at the holidays and vacations taken by their foreign counterparts. Especially when working with a customer that is a chaebol (Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK, etc.), have a back-up or alternate contact person to continue the project in your absence, and avoid surprises by introducing them well before your time off.
  10. From 0 to 90 mph! – Foreigners can experience ambiguous starts, frustrating delays and unexplained stalemates followed by “I want it yesterday!” from Korean customers. Typically the slow periods mean higher-ups have not reached a decision, but once the decision is made, they want to make up for lost time and will pressure the supplier to meet very short deadlines. Be prepared for this pacing shift in your negotiations and staffing.

Next! To expand your knowledge and skills in working with Koreans and other cultures in global teams, request more resources and contact Charis at or call 925.931.0555