Emphasis on Hierarchy Hampers Globalization
By Alan Timblick
Head of Seoul Global Center
When Korea began to open its frontiers to foreigners during the latter half of the 19th Century, the office in charge of foreign relations within the Royal Court was the Office of Ritual.
It was an appropriate allocation of responsibility, given the strong Confucian discipline of national governance at the time. But it did lead to some problems in 'interfacing' with the Western world, since the strict protocol requirements concentrated more on issues of who was allowed to communicate with whom, depending on status and rank, rather than on the substance of the proposals being made.
Today's Korea still exhibits a strong respect for status and the ``pecking order'' of rank. Recently, there was an incident when the head of a foreign firm who was having trouble with rather significant tax claims sent a fax to a Korean minister offering a large donation to a public cause. The minister's juniors advised him to ignore the fax, as not being an appropriate means of communication to someone of his standing.
It is one of the major sources of confusion and misunderstanding between Koreans and Westerners that the hierarchy of relationships is so very important in this country. If I describe someone, for example, as a ``friend,'' and that person happens to be a decade or so younger than me, my Korean counterpart may ask ``How can someone so much younger be your friend?''
Also, it can be amusing for a foreigner to watch how the courtesy of yielding the "president's seat" at the right-hand rear of the car is acted out when businessmen share a ride. In the west, the best seat is, if not the driver's seat behind the wheel, then probably the front seat next to the driver, on the grounds that it provides the best views of the passing scenery.
But how appropriate is this behavior in a modern world and does the drive towards globalization mean that Korea has to give up some of this emphasis on hierarchy and rank?
First, let's consider how education is affected by these Confucian values. Placing a high value on education, parents spend huge sums of money, sacrifice their own careers and even family life, in order to improve the chances of their offspring getting into one of the top universities. There is a hierarchy among educational institutions and this has a strong influence on later job prospects. As a result, all possible efforts are made to ensure the child scores well in the examinations.
But increasingly, the use of multiple-choice exam results as a means of judging competence or suitability in a work environment is coming into question. A western journalist coming to the end of her sojourn in Korea wrote recently about Korean education as follows:
``The system rests largely on rote learning and places almost no value on analysis, creative thinking or practical application. High school students who can score 99 per cent in an English test are often unable to hold even a simple conversation, while university students who express a contrary view to their professor simply fail.''
If Korea is to succeed in the ranks of global economies, its education system should allow students to debate, to be creative in demonstrating their understanding of the subjects studied, and not to be silenced by the notion that the teacher, being senior in rank, must therefore always be right.
Second, Korean corporate life, which is run with the same discipline as a military organization, placing the same emphasis on hierarchy, status and the following of orders, may be becoming steadily obsolete as a business culture, out of tune with the environment where many Korean firms have to operate as they invest in overseas operations.
Non-Korean employees of Korean companies can be very uncomfortable with the style of management they are faced with. For example, issuing an ``order'' to a junior staff member could be considered as insulting and demeaning, especially when a simple ``request'' could have sufficed. Korean managers are not known to walk around their premises and to visit juniors at their desks, on the grounds that it would be beneath their dignity. Juniors, therefore, should be summoned to the boss's office.
The amount of time, energy, internal costs and diversion from customer-oriented activity which goes to make sure a Korean boss is pampered, escorted, satisfied, eulogized and sheltered from criticism is quite extraordinary and would not pass the appraisal of any western management audit process.
In a global corporation, answerable to its shareholders, the luxury of incurring costs such as these would not be tolerated.
Some western observers of Korean corporate culture have described it as a ``punishment culture.'' Indeed, on a job application form there is usually a space where ``rewards and punishments'' are supposed to be listed. In the West, performance related remuneration is generally the main tool, or carrot, for encouraging good results. In Korea, there is also the negative side of the range ― the ``disincentive'' stick to beat the poor performer.
The implication is that corporate officers tend to be in fear of taking risks, since if things go wrong, they are likely to face punishment. But without being prepared to accept a level of risk, it is difficult to see how entrepreneurship can flourish.
Third, and lastly, there is the issue of ageism. The respect for hierarchy results in the decision-taking process migrating to the top of the ladder. Even if one does not subscribe to 'the Peter Principle' (``in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence'') there is evidence to suggest that older people have less energy, less incentive to succeed, and more investment in maintaining the status quo than younger, up-and-coming dynamos. That means that a society run exclusively by those at the top of the age ladder is likely to be more resistant to change, slower to generate new ideas, less flexible and less well equipped to survive in today's rapidly shifting commercial, political and social milieus.
I have to confess that, having achieved a certain age and standing, as well as having become a grandfather, it is rather comfortable to enjoy the luxury and trappings of Confucian respect for seniors and the aged. But at the same time, given that we live in an era of competition between countries and societies, Korea needs to equip itself with the tools of success and survival. I am not sure that Confucianism is any longer the most appropriate instrument in the toolbox for today's conditions.