Culture Clash


Leadership styles
in Asia are often
highly personalized

'The size of this company and the one I used to work for in Korea is about the same," Sook Ki Kim told Paul Kincaid. Sook Ki worked for an investment firm in Pusan, Korea, and recently accepted a position in international finance at a firm in Omaha, Neb. Paul was the president of the firm in Omaha where 150 people were on the payroll.

After three months on the job, Sook Ki asked for an appointment with Paul. There were no problems with her work, she said, but she was beginning to have difficulties in her personal life. Her children were not doing well in school, probably because there were still learning English. Her husband had to accept a job in Omaha that was not at the level of his professional qualifications in Korea. Given these stresses, family members were not happy with their lives in America. Sook Ki asked Paul for his advice concerning what to do. Paul felt unprepared and unqualified to give such advice.

Sook Ki and Paul have different views of what managers and leaders are expected to do. In the United States, leaders give advice on professional issues, and Paul would be comfortable giving Sook Ki guidance on how to keep up to date with developments in American financial markets. However, he may be very uncomfortable giving personal advice. If there was a human resources department in his organization, he would probably refer Sook Ki to a specialist who has had training and experience on how to help with employees' personal problems.

In Korea and other Asian countries, leaders are often expected to be sources of excellent advice on personal issues. Leadership is sometimes referred to as "own family and personal." Leaders are expected to treat employees as members of their family and to treat them in highly personalized ways. This emphasis on the personal means that leaders know about employees' families. They know the ages of employees children, what schools they are going to, what their spouses do, and what problems family members are having with various aspects of their lives. Leaders are expected to have good advice on personal matters and employees take this advice very seriously.

This own family/personal style is more common in small firms than in very large organizations. If a company has more than 500 employees, the company president cannot be expected to have personal information about everyone. In large organizations, however, the role of personal advice giver may be taken on by a department head in charge of 50 or 60 people. If managers are expected to offer advice about life outside the workplace, they will lose the respect of coworkers if they are unwilling to assume this responsibility.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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