In Part 3 of Korea Facing's update on hierarchy, we explore workplace challenges for Korean mid-level management.
Middle Level Management
Most often those dispatched to department level overseas assignments are kwajang (manager)and chajang (deputy general manager) levels, although dae-ri
(assistant manager) can take posts for temporary tasks and projects. While not entry-level positions, these middle level managers face many challenges today that can impact overseas operations. First, within a Korean organization questioning or evaluating the opinions, ideas or orders of one's superiors is not proper for kwajang and chajang. Moreover, any request "from above" receives priority over other projects and scheduled meetings. Mid-level managers are well groomed as implementers but not as decision-makers.
Perhaps most telling of changes in the Korean workplace, as early as 2006 Korea Times (Hanguk ilbo) shared new challenges for middle level managers-the growing generational divide.
In a series of frank interviews with mid level managers the article began with a 43-year-old office worker in Seoul who was thinking seriously about quitting his job. As a middle-ranking manager at an automaker, he was "sandwiched" by his boss and his subordinates. He noted, "It is really difficult working with my senior officers and my junior staff members. When something goes wrong, I get harsh criticism from both the bottom and top levels."
In Korea, the term "sandwiched" denotes a generation of middle managers in their late 30s to late 40s. While this age group has some social and political views that differ from those of the older generation, in many ways their values which emphasize the importance of collective organizations, such as work, nation, and society, are still very similar to those of the older generation.
As a result, the "sandwiched" group's organization-first mentality often clashes with the younger generation whose top priority is individual freedom. "When I was a rookie, I didn't have any choice but to be quiet when I had an issue or I disagreed with my superiors. But nowadays, the younger generation boldly express their opinions in the workplace," the Korean manager shared. In turn, this younger generation now expects middle management to emulate this norm-a behavior that middle managers find unacceptable and improper. Still, in most cases I find mid level managers remain silent.
A 39-year-old middle manager at a local manufacturing company noted that he now has to be careful when dealing with both his seniors and juniors- two groups with very differing views as noted above. The manager adds, "Nowadays, middle-class managers in Korea are evaluated both by top managers and by subordinates. This adds new stress to the task of middle management."
Adding to the challenge, the Korea Times
article concludes by pointing out that the younger generations see many faults in "sandwiched" managers. For example, the younger group argues that middle mangers often erroneously blame younger workers for problems. "They [the middle managers] don't realize the real problem. They are really stubborn and pigheaded. They are not ready to listen to younger workers. They keep saying that we have to do this and that, but they never set a good example for us. Naturally, we don't respect them at all," said a young Seoul professional
The young professional also notes, "Senior workers think that sitting at office until late is working well. It is wrong. They just sit too long, pretending to work hard and thus they want to get the favor of their boss. But it is not efficient at all."
One final point-"Nail that Sticks Out"
Recognizing that no two Koreans are alike in personality and experience, middle level management, especially chajang (deputy general managers), often are seen as the most resistant to change and risk-taking among Korean teams. Why? Job security. Many Korean managers in their late 30s and early 40s see little career opportunity outside their company. The major Groups tend to promote from within, with few outsiders joining the management ranks of major companies.
Moreover, many of these middle managers defer decisions and avoid taking any risk that might jeopardize future promotions. Some take a " the nail that sticks out gets hammered" stance, keep a low profile with their team, and try not to draw any attention.
Internally their Korean juniors and their western co-workers in overseas' operations find this risk avoidance challenging and frustrating. In most cases, middle managers look to minimize their direct exposure.
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