A Lesson From Korea

By: Joseph Lassen

“So, what do you guys think?”

My question was answered only by deafening silence and three pairs of Korean women’s eyes staring back at me.

…I should probably give some context. When this happened I was an exchange student at Konkuk University, located in Seoul, South Korea. I posed the question above during a discussion for a group project assigned in a strategic management class. These three women and I were assigned to work together to complete a written paper and a presentation over the course of a couple of months. Our assignment?

If IKEA were to enter and expand into the South Korean market, how would they do this? Think strategically.

Over the previous three weeks we had been composing a business case to answer this question and one month remained before we were expected to give an hour-long capstone presentation to our professor and fellow students from across the management department. This was worrisome. The problem of resounding silence in response to my comments and questions had emerged early on, and had only become more pronounced as the project progressed.

Why wouldn’t my group members say anything?

As a foreigner living in Korea, I certainly knew less than my classmates about the culture of the country (which inherently dictated the behavior of the consumer base for our hypothetical IKEA expansion), and where a company like IKEA might focus its attention within the country geographically. More importantly, half of the rubric for the project was in Korean – a clever ploy by the management professor to ensure that all of the members of each group worked together. Because no one in my group would talk, there was no way for me to know if the project was headed in the right direction. After the first couple of weeks, our group’s progress had deteriorated to the point where I would come up with an idea and immediately there would be unanimous consent that our project should take that direction. There was no one playing devil’s advocate, no critical analysis, no additions to my partially formed ideas, and most of all, no original input from the members of the group who had the best insight. By the time we had the meeting described above, I was quite frustrated and as I came to learn, so were the others in my group. Looking in from the outside, it would have been a picturesque example of a dysfunctional team.

Skip to the Friday after that meeting. My roommate at the university, Byong Chan Min, who goes by ‘Peter’ for short, walked into our room with a plastic grocery bag containing two small bottles of soju. For those unfamiliar, soju is essentially a cross between vodka and sake, and just as strong. Peter greeted me, walked over and placed a bottle on my desk, then walked across the room to sit in his chair and placed the second bottle on his desk. Since moving in Peter and I had become courteous roommates, but had never delved past superfluous conversation. Once he settled in, I shot him a quizzical look. He gave me a sly smile and simply stated, “bonding time”. The conversation could not have come at a better time.

After a generous amount of the soju had disappeared out of the little green bottles, my exasperation with the management project and my classmates’ complete lack of participation arose… maybe Peter had some insight?

After taking a slow, especially contemplative sip, he answered,

“Well… you are a man, you are older than they are, and the fact that you speak English perfectly and with confidence scares them. Because of this, they will never challenge what you say or give their own ideas. This is the Korean culture.”

Wow. Now we were getting somewhere.

“Oh. So, if you were in my situation, what would you do?”

“From now on, never give an idea before you have listened to everything each one of them has to say. Even then, maybe don’t give an opinion. Ask which idea they like the most. Because of what I mentioned before, they will expect you to choose the final direction, but if you want, that decision doesn’t necessarily have to be yours. Don’t be afraid to listen.”

I’ve been thinking about that comment for years now.

During our group’s meetings over the next week and a half there were more uncomfortable silences than I care to count as my group mates patiently waited for me to propose my own ideas, answer my own questions, and dictate the direction of the project as their cavalier, and likely misguided leader… but I held my silence, subconsciously willing them to talk… any of them… just once…please. Fortunately, awkward silences are universally understood – no Rosetta Stone necessary – and slowly, very slowly, each of my group members began to think and vocalize their own ideas. Peter’s advice had begun a magnificent transformation.

The next month’s work culminated in our presentation to a lecture hall of nearly 200 people, our final grade dependent upon our prepared content and presentation. With one minute remaining, our professor asked his last question. It pertained to the distribution strategy of IKEA in relation to their existing supply chain in the Asia-Pacific region. I had no semblance of an answer prepared, and couldn’t have made one up if I had wanted to. I instantly surveyed the faces of my group mates standing beside me for help. The temperature of the lecture hall seemed to rise precipitously.

What were we going to say? What was there to say?

In a moment that has stuck with me ever since, Jae Eun Kim, usually the most shy member of our group looked at me, raised her eyebrows and gave a small smile – clearly she had an answer. I have no doubt that only a month prior she would have stood there, silent, staring at the floor, waiting for me to speak first; although now, empowered, she turned to the audience and our professor and gave what I assume was an exquisite answer to the question in fluent Korean. To this day I have no idea what she said, but the smile on our professor’s face told the entire story. We received nearly a perfect score on the project, with the highest marks for ‘participation of all group members’.

My experiences have shown that an empowered team will produce results greater than the sum of the parts, always. Of course this empowerment comes in many forms, but as a leader, endeavoring to understand how other people think, and understanding why they act the way they do can offer spectacular rewards. In some cases then, perhaps, leadership can be defined by the things that you don’t say rather than the things that you do.

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