Defining the Problem
The position with SK Telecom in South Korea “seemed like a dream job” for Linda Myers, who would become one of the first American female executives in the South Korea (p. 124). Yet Myers, and her organization, underestimated the importance of understanding the nuances of Korean culture. Myers had worked abroad as an expatriate before and assumed that all countries outside the United States would pose similar challenges. She was wrong to make this assumption. “Although she’d been in new cultural situations before, this one seemed more difficult to navigate,” (p. 124). If Myers had been more willing to consider what Korean business culture would be like, she might have avoided some of the problems that occurred. “Her experience prepping clients to work for Western multinationals in China and other countries did not easily translate to her situation in Korea,” showing the importance of treating each situation, and each new country or culture, differently (p. 126).
The problem is not Myers’ alone, though. She had “no official orientation” and no detailed guidance from her superiors,” (p. 124). This is an organizational issue, stemming from poor management decisions related to human resources. Moreover, Myers felt “isolated,” as she was not given any opportunity to form relationships with her new colleagues in Seoul (p. 124). Moreover, human resources managers failed to choose someone who might better fit in with the Seoul business culture than Myers, if they were determined to avoid a comprehensive orientation and training program. “Her straight- forward American style was at odds with the polite formality of her Korean peers,” (p. 125). There were also clear issues of role clarity that were never addressed in a fruitful way: “And she eventually realized that she and her new employer had different ideas about what her role would be,” (p. 125).
Ultimately, Myers failed because human resources managers failed to do their job right. Ironically, Myers had worked previously in “a boutique consulting firm in Washington, DC, that helps multinationals such as Hewlett-Packard and ExxonMobil develop cross-cultural training programs,” (p. 125). Myers should have seen what was coming when she accepted the position with SK. Instead, she failed to confront the gender issue immediately. The South Korean partners had “assumed” she was male and she might never have confronted them about this to find out if they had an issue working with a new female executive (p. 125).
Analyzing the Cause
First, Myers was unprepared for Seoul: “One early shock was the homogeneity of not only her office but also the city.” She said she read books about Korea before going, but reading books is no substitute for travel or interaction with Korean-Americans who might have been able to help her in a real way. Second, in spite of her background as a consultant related to cross-cultural communication, Myers did not analyze the position using Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. If she had, Myers might have been able to better understand her role and how to fit in with SK Telecom.
For example, one of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions is power distance. American culture has a flat power distance, which is why Myers instinctively asked her Korean colleagues to stop calling her Sang Mu Linda, and start calling her Linda. She lost credibility and power by doing so because Korean culture has a high power distance in which authority and distance between superiors and subordinates is expected. “What she regarded as a ‘participative leadership style’ looked wishy-washy to the people at SK,” (p. 126). Myers should have been aware of this important dimension of culture. She recognized, for example, that the SK Telecom company was hierarchical in nature: “You only talked to people at your level,” (p. 125).
Gender, and the dimension of masculinity, is also a critical issue in this case. Myers was acutely aware of the gender barrier almost as soon as she heard about the position because the company mistakenly addressed her as a man. The Korean contingency had assumed she was a man because of her position of power. When she arrived in the Seoul office, Myers noticed immediately that she was “almost always the only woman in the room” except for secretaries (p. 125). The fact that women in Korean culture generally hold subordinate rather than superior positions reveals the differences on Hofstede’s dimension of masculinity. This also relates to the fact that South Korea scores high on the Hofstede dimension of orientation, in which “men have more authority than young people and women,” (“Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions” n.d.). Korean and American cultures also differ in terms of uncertainty and avoidance. Korea has a high uncertainty/avoidance index, in some ways. For example, SK Telecom had “very formal business conduct,” which contrasted with Myer’s more informal style (“Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions” n.d.). At the same time, there were a lot of issues that were not directly discussed or addressed due to the tendency to cultural communication. Myers also had poor role clarity.
1. Perhaps Myers could have consulted with Korean people and Korean-Americans before going, and taken some Korean language lessons. Simply reading books was not enough for a personal orientation to the culture. Self-education would have taken the place of a more formal orientation. However, a more formal orientation would have been appropriate in this and other cases.
2. Myers should have requested more role clarity and asked what her colleagues and superiors at SK Telecom expected of her. She thought they wanted more radical change than they did; and “they intended her stint to be relatively short,” (p. 126). She should have tried to glean as much information as possible so that it was clear what was expected of her. It would have been appropriate for Myers to ask for clarity before accepting the position hastily.
3. It was important to maintain her position of power by respecting Korean high power distance in this scenario. When she dropped her formal title, Myers was not respecting Korean culture. Instead, she was imposing American values on the Korean organization. As Avcan, Kanungo, et al. (2000) point out, it is important to refrain from creating human resources strategies from the perspective of only one culture or only in the context of “Western values,” (p. 193). Myers could have been more effective and left a greater mark on SK Telecom if she had been more willing to participate in the company on their terms.
4. Although much that went wrong was cross-cultural issue, some things were not and were more common-sense. “Not every communication failure is a cross-cultural issue” (126). Likewise, Myers could have been more effective if she had greater role clarity and if she communicated her ideas in ways her colleagues understood. One non-Korean colleague said: “They didn’t implement anything that she did — and she had some great ideas.” (126). This means that it was not necessarily a cross-cultural communication issue but a more global issue that was the problem.
Aycan, Z., Kanungo, R.N., et al. (2000). Impact of culture on human resource management practices. Applied Psychology 49(1): 192-221.
Green, S. (2011). The would-be pioneer. Harvard Business Review. 89(4), 124-126.
“Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions” (n.d.). Retrieved online: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_66.htm
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