South Korea has a strong economy and offers employment opportunities in various sectors. Many international companies continue to attract expats from all over the world. How do Korean and French cultures mutually appreciate each other in companies in Korea?
This article has been made possible thanks to the constructive inputs of international professionals who have been working directly with French and Koreans in a business context.
Here is the summary of their background:
The following study has no intention of being exclusively representative of all Korean or French companies, but solely describes the perception of interviewees from their professional experiences.
Perception of management styles
The first part of the survey focus on a classification of management styles encountered by the interviewees. This exercise helps us to identify a pattern in French and Korean working cultures, with 3 styles perceived as very usual, and 3 very unusual :
[ FRENCH MANAGEMENT ] French managers are portrayed as leaders expecting a strong contribution from their team members in the decision making process: collaboration and consultations are major traits.
Interestingly, participative, paternalistic and persuasive managements are equally common as well: showing here again the importance of validation in the communication.
This being said, the flip side of the coin is a poor skill for transformational management, which is reported to be very unusual. French management seems also not being future oriented, with lack of vision and not putting employees developments as a core focus.
[ KOREAN MANAGEMENT ] Korean companies are usually portrayed as very authoritative, and this is the first management style reported among interviewees, who also shared two other strong patterns: a paternalistic and delegative approaches of management.
We can note that the paternalistic aspect is also found in the Hoesik gathering (company diners) where managers will gather their teams usually at least once a month for a diner (and drinks) to treat their employees.
Without surprise: participative management is however not very usual in Korean management, and like their French counterparts, korean managers seldom incorporate coaching and visionary managements at work.
Common weakness / strength among in French and Korean working culture
Korean coworkers perceived as:
(From 1 very unusual to 5 very usual / Evaluation by non-French only)
Most of interviewees perceived Koreans workers as very goal oriented, allowing them to deploy actions quickly, with a reliable teamwork. Actions are done in time, with a real attention to deliver what has been promised.
Teams can however quickly get disorganized in a changing environment, and managers may face difficulties to switch from micro and macro perspectives. A certain lack of confidence at work is also perceived.
❝ No matter the hindrances, tight deadlines, shortness of manpower, etc., they always strive to finding solutions and make sure they achieve results ❞
❝ Once a decision has been made, projects and actions deployment speed can be extremely efficient ❞
French coworkers perceived as:
(From 1 very unusual to 5 very usual)
Evaluation by non-French only
French workers are recognized in a working environment as being extremely flexible, with a great sense of creativity in complex situations. They usually show a certain confidence and optimism at work. This allow them to navigate in very complex situations.
Their main weakness is reported to lie in change management, having a real difficulty to transform organizations. This might be caused by a lack of clear communication, with a strong bias, and a lack of motivation at work.
❝ From my experience, French coworkers have a very Human approach and creativity ❞
❝ A strong willing to find solutions and the flexibility are the most appreciated value in French working culture. « Anything is possible » mindset helps a lot out in motivating people ❞
Two concepts having a great impact in Korean and French working cultures
The French art de vivre implies several subtle elements that combines etiquette, freedom of ideas, philosophy, excellence and much more. At work, it usually implies that individuals should be able share their opinions freely, have a clear border between work time and off time, and should thrive to maintain existing work comfort. The overall idea being that one should work to live, and not live to work. This concept can often be perceived as impacting work efficiency, and can raise a lot of complaints with non-French workers, as shared here by a Korean manager:
❝ I usually receive emails and phone calls to which I make an effort to respond promptly. However during French vacation season, any message I send automatically receives the automated . ”I will be out of the office” email without any follow up ❞
This being said, this French “art de vivre” often helps to develop creativity, autonomy and flexibility as key strengths recognized in French workers.
Nunchi is a great example of how appearances and groups relationships are important in korean culture, and especially in business management. Nunchi refers to the ability for an individual to quickly understand how a group is working and to adapt to it. The hierarchy in place, the feelings or moods of coworkers, the social rules, are only elements that should conduct office behaviors. As a result, Korean teams trend to have a certain harmony and their members will usually avoid to act against them, as highlighted by a French developer in Korea:
❝ They are afraid of confrontations, and even constructive confrontations, which doesn’t help the team to get better as a whole ❞
However, nunchi plays a key role in empathy at work and often act as an enabler for strong team work.
Other thoughts from the interviewees
❝ Not only specific to French companies but to all European companies: innovation and transformation agility seems moderate. ❞-Sam F.
❝ As an American, the stereotype we often here is that it’s a pain to work with the French because work is never prioritized. I can see the reasoning behind this, but I also have a certain admiration for the French attitude of “we work to live” as opposed to the American attitude of “we live to work. ❞-Andrew P.
❝ The “it’s not my problem” attitude when confronted with a question or problem that falls even slightly outside of their designated job description. ❞-Richard O.
❝ In sales field, racism and sexism are consumed very casually as jokes. I find it very tough to overcome as a non-french female salesperson. ❞-Angelina W.
❝ Highly flexible, not very systematic/procedural or hard lined but somehow make it work. Very human culture in the sense that there is some empathy and exceptions can be made to accommodate unusual cases. For example, during pandemic, extra considerations were made and rules were bent to allow people to be with their families. ❞-Cathy F.
❝ I noticed a tremendous difference with Koreans that opened to other work cultures and Koreans that got stuck in the old ways. Seeing the young generations learn is very inspiring and promising for the future. ❞-Peter Z.
❝ During my time in Korea, I worked for two different smaller family-owned language academies. Both of these academies would often times try to include me in their families and would often invite me to family events or company dinners with the hope of building a relationship that will spill over and strengthen the work productivity of me and my colleagues. ❞-Walter S.
❝ Koreans are often goal-driven in the workplace, and therefore quality or proper systematic approaches are often overlooked and deemed less important. ❞-Marie B.
❝ The transparency is difficult in a culture of indirect communication. It’s sometimes difficult to receive important information at right timing. ❞-Christina V.
❝ The capacity of managers to raise the organization as one block to achieve a target in a very short time in case of crisis is really impressive. I remember the time where a product redesign was expected to be done in 8 months and due to customer constraint, the result was achieved in 3 months. European management couldn’t believe it. ❞-Sacha Y.