Located in South East Asia, South Korea is typical of the Confucian societies that are common in that region. Some even regard South Korea as having the most Confucian society of all, with Confucian patterns and traits being translated into the everyday life of the South Koreans, as well as into their business culture. Therefore, it is important to understand the most fundamental teachings of Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) in order to work efficiently in a team together with your South Korean counterparts.
According to the Confucianism, having harmonious relationships with other people is crucial. South Koreans observe and practice the teachings about harmony and will expect the same from the other members in a team as well. Maintaining harmony at all times, even if it means sacrificing personal interest for the sake of the group, is expected and in some instances even required. That also means that one has to read a lot between the lines in order to understand the high-context communication within the team. If you disrupt the harmony and let someone lose face (kibun), voluntarily or involuntarily, this will be seen as highly inappropriate and you will be considered, almost forever, an outsider.
The second important teaching of Confucianism that is relevant for those who want to work in a team with South Koreans is collectivism. South Korea is a very a collectivistic society that places a strong emphasis on harmonious group relations. The group is more important than the individual; as a team member you are obligated to subordinate your own needs to those of the group. Praise or criticism is also given in a collectivistic manner: If personal feedback is considered necessary, it will be given in private. Be sure to keep that in mind while working in a team with your South Korean counterparts. Every accomplishment is achieved thanks to the group’s effort, regardless of how impressively or poorly each individual performed. Furthermore, bragging about personal achievements in front of other team members is considered very rude.
A third important teaching of Confucianism is hierarchy. South Korea is a status- oriented and hierarchical-society. As such, great care and respect is given to authority and seniority. Therefore, always treat your South Korean counterpart with the respect appropriate to his age and status in the company’s hierarchy. Moreover, the managers of your team are also to be respected, because they are the managers and therefore higher ranked in the society than you are. You will be judged heavily on how you maintain this hierarchical order, so never treat someone superior to you with inadequate respect. Your creditworthiness and trustworthiness as a team member depend greatly on how you follow these rules and procedures regarding someone’s rank and status. You can be assured that your South Korean counterparts will have the same status that you have while working as a team, hereby guaranteeing the harmony and balance in teamwork. Nonetheless, always be alert around new acquaintances and team members, since disrespect can cause the other person to lose face, and this can ultimately result in a loss of reputation for your entire South Korean team.
In conclusion, while working in a team with South Koreans, remember to build and maintain harmonious relationships, respect authority, and to act in a collectivistic manner. Behaving according to social procedures and rules is essential in order to earn trust and acceptance from your South Korean team members. Last but not least, South Koreans are famous for their sense of humour, as long as it is not at the expense of somebody else, so don’t forget yours at home.