Hierarchy is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Korean culture. In turn, the Korean workplace is deeply rooted in hierarchy. Reaching back to Korea's Neo- Confucian past, social stratification is very apparent in many of Korea's top companies. South Korea's authoritarian military regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s added and reinforced this old model.
One observation is high Power Distance, a term used in cross-cultural studies for a conspicuous disparity or difference between senior management and teams. A number of workplace norms dictate (with lots of protocols) interaction between the teams and senior management. Essentially teams prepare reports and data for senior management to review, await approval for the executives, and then implement.
The hierarchical relationship between subordinates and superiors becomes evident in a great emotional distance, which, among other things means that those lower down the hierarchy do not approach their superiors but the superiors contact their subordinates if they are needed.
In a hierarchical system a request from above always overrides other plans and thus schedules are often revised at short notice. This can also unfold as any request from the Korean headquarters taking precedence over operations at the local branch or subsidiary.
This top down management style works well in Korea, but as the nation has expanded globally, firms need to adapt to regionally norms. For example, local teams used to Low Power Distance norms and flat organizations in much of North American and Europe find Korea's top down management style a challenge.
In our next Korea Facing update, we'll look at the role of Title and Position within the context of Korean overseas and workplace hierarchy.