06.06.19 Vi rådgiver dig Nyheder

Help! There's a man in overalls and safety shoes in my office

Being a foreign manager in Denmark isn’t that easy. On our many visits to the member companies of the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) we are time and again reminded that being a foreign manager in Denmark presents a number of special challenges.

With equal proportions of curiosity and genuine interest, we have been keeping an eye out for the very particular challenges that being a foreign manager in a Danish work culture may present. You can read here about the factors we encounter over and over again.

There’s actually sometimes a man in overalls and safety shoes in the manager's office – and thank goodness for that

The Danish model is absolutely unique, and for many foreign managers it can be something of a shock when there’s suddenly a union rep outside the director’s office, asking whether the new Italian manager might soon have time to chat about the status quo. It can take time to get used to, but luckily most foreign managers quickly find that everyday collaboration between representatives of management and employees works very well.

Why shouldn't I call you Volker when that's your name?

In by far the majority of countries there is a bigger power distance than we have in our Danish work culture. Many foreign managers have to get used to this, and it can be difficult when employees call out 'Hi Volker!' if back in Germany you’re used to being called 'Herr Doktor Bauer'. But make no mistake: despite the small power distance hierarchies are still evident at Danish workplaces. Take a look around the company canteen at lunchtime, for example. It’s still not unusual for management to eat at the same table, whilst the employees from the various departments and teams gather around their own tables.

We want to be heard, but consensus is for Swedes

Not to mention the decision-making processes in Danish companies. In true democratic fashion everyone must of course be heard, and don’t forget that those unable to attend the meeting would also like to make their opinions known. Foreign managers who have got to know the Danish work culture and our basic democratic attitudes can easily get into trouble if they go all the way and ask for a majority decision, or 'even worse' think we should discuss things until everyone’s in agreement. It can easily seem as if the managers are unwilling to take the necessary responsibility. Navigating Danish companies’ decision-making can call for particular caution and a clear matching of expectations.

Open frameworks are good – a free for all is irresponsible

The same applies to the relatively high degree of freedom that characterises many Danish workplaces. Danes generally prefer 'open frameworks' to 'constricting rules', and foreign managers who in their eagerness to match employees' wishes and requirements fail to make any preparations can end up having a lot to do if there is no clear framework and set expectations in terms of deadlines, use of resources, quality etc. Despite everything, there’s no free for all in Danish companies. But where is the right place to set the boundary?

The person best at English is not necessarily the one who’s technically the most competent

Danes’ language skills are generally very good, and a great many Danes communicate in English at a relatively high level. This is a clear advantage when collaborating with foreign managers, but it can at the same time be a source of challenges in everyday life. Strong skills in English can create the impression of a high degree of professionalism and expertise, and foreign managers can easily confuse these skills in English with a high degree of professional skill. It is not always the person who speaks the best English who is the strongest in a specific professional area.

When our openness and humour become too much of a good thing

Foreign managers are often amazed at Danes' great openness and rather coarse sense of humour. Even the British, who are otherwise both famous and notorious for their humour going pretty near the bone, may find that Danes go over the top. We easily slip up, as the combination of our sense of humour, including much irony and sarcasm, our very direct tone/manners and a level of English that is maybe neat and impeccable on paper isn’t really sufficient. Far too often we end up translating directly from Danish into English, forgetting the subtle nuances attached to social and cultural norms.

Should we now also show our feelings at work?

For foreign managers, with a perhaps more explicit range of emotions than we usually experience in a Danish work culture, it can be hard to decode whether their employees are crazy about something or are getting bored stiff. At the same time, foreign managers clearly showing and expressing passion and frustration can have a pretty powerful effect on Danish employees.

How do you make a career in a flat Danish organisation?

For many foreign managers the career landscape in Danish companies appears a little discouraging. Our flat organisations do not provide many direct opportunities to make a career in a traditional hierarchical sense, and many foreign managers are often used to organisations whose size, hierarchy and clear career paths are totally different to those found in even the biggest Danish companies. That’s why it takes a very special effort to show foreign managers that 'upwards' is not necessarily the only satisfactory career path. There are many opportunities to assume great responsibility, even in small and medium-sized Danish companies, not to mention the exciting challenges that may be inherent in executing new strategies, managing complex changes and going global.

How can we succeed together?

There are many exciting opportunities and challenges in the field of tension between relationships and results, in terms of foreign managers succeeding in a Danish work culture. A good question to ask ourselves is whether we are able to give foreign managers a solid basis to build on from a managerial standpoint, and whether we will be able to apply the differences constructively in everyday life so they can contribute to a stronger mutual outcome, instead of impeding it.


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Danielle Bjerre Lyndgaard
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Danielle Bjerre Lyndgaard

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