Saturday, November 26, 2011

Korea - Reading Between the Lines

That's "noonchi", not "kimchi"

If you've been in a Korean restaurant you know "kimchi." Most people associate it with cabbage; however, it's really a spicing and marinating technique that can be applied to any vegetable. A lot of people like it, but after two years in Korea that still doesn't include me.

What does fascinate me is the concept of "noonchoi." In the western world we might think of this as "reading between the lines." But the idea is much deeper. It's about anticipating what the other person wants to say and even finishing the thought for them. Generally it's the responsibility of the subordinate in a relationship to have "good noon chi." It's the subordinates responsibility not to embarrass the superior.

You Better Have Good Noonchi
Usually "noon chi" is at the emotional, feelings level. Korean's are ok exchanging on a rational, factual level; however, they are loath to expose their feelings. For example, if a father has decided they don't like the daughter's new boy friend - the father would never say so. It's the daughter responsibility to read words and gestures and come to the right conclusion. The father would never expose his feeling, or conclusion. We can only hope that the daughter reads it right.

Noonchi at Work
Noonchi is more than a social requirement, it's a core competence at work. Confucius learning instills a set of values and one of the strongest is the respectful relationship that an employee must hold for their boss. Respect is good; however, when it turns to deference in the work place then lots of things can wrong. Specifically: change, innovation, & growth.

I have been working on organizational transformations in Asia and most recently in Korea. Noonchi is my nemesis. We work hard to bring new learnings into an organization so that people can break their paradigms and create new business opportunities. Noonchi is a barrier that we do not face in the west.

This has been exposed to me as I work with executives to engage their employees so we can unleash ideas from everyone, everywhere. We ask executives to balance their management style with inclusive behaviors of leadership. We ask them to become more transparent and authentic. Yes, this is an issue with western executives as well; however, it is not as ingrained nor does it have such a wide work and social impact as it does in Korea.

Executives don't want to let down their guard, and I'm not sure that employees want to see it either. Both sides would be confused and uncomfortable.

The "So What?" of Noonchi
The positive part of the global economy is in Asia these days. While the west struggles to slow its "race to the bottom," the opposite is true in the east. Holding back run away growth is the economic struggle here.

This puts fear and paranoia into western thinking. I'm not sure it's justified. The west still has a spirit of innovation and sufficient disrespect for authority that it will find a way out. The east is living in an economic bubble driven by its strategy of "second in." All boats are rising on the tide of: "we can do it better than the originators in the west."

As visibility and law suits expose this strategy the east will need to change horses. If the horse is still eating "noonchi" it will slow down in the global race.