Foreigners on Danish bosses: “Less like an army general and more like a sports coach”

13. december 2022 kl. 15:39
Foreigners on Danish bosses: “Less like an army general and more like a sports coach”
“My Danish manager doesn’t know anything,” a South Korean woman described her boss. A coaching leadership style and answers such as “What do you think would be best?” can be misunderstood if one is used to a higher level of hierarchy. Illustration: Freepik.
The informal Danish leadership style can make it difficult to decipher who is at the top of the hierarchy. Two new books guide foreign workers in Denmark.
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In a country where management hierarchies are as flat as the mountains, it can be difficult for an outsider to navigate the labour market. How to deal with a boss who asks for your own opinion? And how do you even decipher who is the boss?

The number of foreign workers doubled in the period from 2010 to 2021, and the 251,000 foreigners who were employed full-time in Denmark last year make up 11 percent of the total employment, according to an analysis from the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI).

Therefore, it has become highly relevant to learn how to behave in the Danish meeting rooms and production halls, and it is hardly a coincidence that two books were published last month guiding foreigners through Danish work culture and teaching them how to better understand their Danish manager and all the unwritten rules.

When the manager doesn’t know anything

“I think a lot of Danish managers are proud of our leadership style,” says Signe Ørom, author of the book Did you get the point?, Ph.D., and owner of Connecting Cultures, where she teaches cultural competences and prepares companies and their employees for intercultural cooperation.

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“And passing on the responsibility and delegating tasks works really well in Denmark. But this can be misunderstood by a person who comes from an organization that is much more hierarchical,” she says, citing as an example a South Korean woman in a high position in a Danish pharmaceutical company:

“During a confidential conversation, she said to me: ‘Signe, my Danish manager doesn’t know anything.’ When I started asking some more questions, I found out that it is due to this coaching leadership style. So when she came in and asked her Danish manager how she should solve a task, she got the classic Danish answers like: ‘What do you think would be best?’” Signe Ørom says.

“So she actually concluded that her manager didn’t have the insight needed to lead a team, and she had stopped asking questions because he couldn’t answer them anyway, and she thought it was a shame that he kept losing face. But the manager’s intention was simply to keep his employee involved and stay at eye level with her.”

A general in cowboy pants

Less like an army general and more like a sports coach. This is how Kay Xander Mellish, American consultant, writer, and keynote speaker living in Copenhagen, describes Danish bosses in her book How to Work in Denmark. She elaborates on the sports metaphor about Danish bosses:

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“The boss outlines how important it is to win the game, brings in people she believes have the right qualifications, and gives them the outline of what she wants done. Then she sets them loose on the playing field, to go do their jobs.”

Danish hierarchies are as flat as a football pitch, and Danish bosses do not like to flaunt their authority, Kay Xander Mellish believes.

A group of Brazilian engineers experienced this first-hand. They had just arrived in Denmark, and after a cultural training session with Signe Ørom, they had to meet the CEO at their new workplace for the first time.

“It was a huge thing for them, so they stood up and waited with combed-back hair, wearing their best suits and ties,” Signe Ørom says.

“And then the CEO Jesper came in wearing a polo shirt and cowboy pants and talked completely at eye level with them. When I spoke to them immediately afterwards, they actually couldn’t really remember what he had said because they were so shocked by his attire and appearance,” she recalls.

Because if you come from a hierarchical culture, you are used to being able to read people’s place in the hierarchy from their appearance, Signe Ørom explains.

“And to come to a Danish organization and meet a Danish manager, with whom you are on a first-name basis and who sits in an open office space with everyone else and makes jokes—it can seem incredibly transgressive in an international context."

Humour creates relationships

Another thing that can seem transgressive to foreigners is our use of irony, which can easily lead to misunderstandings.

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Signe Ørom gave an example of a woman from the Czech Republic who experienced a greater culture shock when coming to Denmark than China, where she had worked just before.

“At the very beginning, she got really sick to her stomach at a meeting because she asked her employees if they would cross their fingers at 11 a.m., when her daughter had an exam. One of them then said that she shouldn’t be nervous about that because she surely has a very smart father,” Signe Ørom says and continues:

“We’re all familiar with jokes like that in a Danish context because that’s how we create relationships, but it can also be perceived as incredibly insulting.”

Therefore, the Danish irony is a pitfall, because one risks offending the international employees, who often misunderstand it and take it literally.

Misunderstood irony

An example of Danish irony that was taken literally is an Indian employee who was new to his company and was given a tour by his manager.

“Then at one point, out of respect for the authority of the manager, he asked if he could go to the toilet. The manager replied: ‘Ah, you’ll just have to wait until you’re free’—as in ‘Of course you can, you don’t have to ask about that’. But the Indian employee misunderstood it and ended up holding it in all day until he could run to the toilet three minutes past 4 p.m.,” Signe Ørom says.

Kay Xander Mellish believes that an additional reason why Danish irony can be easily misunderstood by people from other cultures is that it is always delivered without the person themselves laughing at the end or saying “just kidding”, as the Americans do.

“Instead, they just sit there with a straight face and wait for you to jokingly bite back,” as she writes.

Diversity brings more innovation

Still, there are more advantages than disadvantages to employing foreigners, Signe Ørom says—also apart from the obvious lack of labour.

“There is a huge potential in terms of innovation and performance. If the diversity in a multicultural group is handled intelligently, it can really create some dynamics. A recent study points to as much as 68 percent higher innovation in multicultural teams when diversity is handled as something positive,” Signe Ørom says and elaborates that it is worth practicing intercultural cooperation:

“It is a premise for the labour market of the future.”

Listen to an interview with Signe Ørom in Ingeniøren’s free podcast Transformator (in Danish).

“Did you get the point?” by Signe Ørom, Samfundslitteratur, 303 pages, DKK 339.95.

“How to work in Denmark” by Xander Mellish, KXM Group, 144 pages, DKK 99.95.

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