Stories about life in Denmark, Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture

Motivating Danish employees: Tips for Foreign Managers

When you’re not from Denmark, understanding the way Danes think can take a little time. And if you’re an international manager in charge of managing and motivating a group of Danes, you may not have a lot of time to experiment before you’re expected to produce results.

So I wanted to share some of the tips I gave to a group of international managers recently on motivating Danish employees.

Motivating Danish employees is very different than motivating other groups of people because there are two big factors missing – hierarchy and fear.

Hierarchy and fear
We don’t like to talk about the fear part in our various countries of origin, but the fact is true that in the US, UK, China, India, and in parts of Europe, someone who loses their job can be in a lot of trouble. They may have trouble paying their bills, might lose their house, might not have access to health care, might not be able to send their kids to university.

That’s not the case in Denmark. Everybody pays for those services through their taxes, so losing your job doesn’t mean you lose access to these things the way it might mean elsewhere in the world.

And that means that employees aren’t slightly afraid of their boss the way they might be elsewhere in the world – and they’re much more willing to speak up.

They’re not going to do what you tell them to just because you’re the boss. Hierarchy exists in Denmark, despite what the Danes sometimes want to believe, but you don’t always get a lot of respect from being at the top of the hierarchy.

In this society where egalitarianism is a deep and cherished value, the person standing on a pedestal is kind of assumed to be a buffoon. You’ve heard of the famous Janteloven that informally governs Danish culture – and one of its rules is don’t think you’re better than us.

Employees expect to be in the loop
In a Danish environment, you’re going to have to convince your employees that what you suggest is the right course of action.

And being part of the decision is what Danish employees expect. They expect to be consulted. They expect to be in the loop.

I spoke to a nurse recently who was working in Denmark after spending some time in Norway – which is a pretty close cousin. She said that here in Denmark, the doctors asked for her opinion on the cases they worked on together, which she said was not the case in Norway.

Actually, you’d be foolish not to consult your employees. Salaries are so high in Denmark that you really want to use all the expertise you’ve paid for.

The obvious motivators don’t work
So back to the original question – how do you motivate these highly-paid employees?

The obvious motivators in other cultures don’t always work in Denmark.

The chance to earn more money, for example. In Denmark, taxes are going to take a lot of that extra income, especially at the high end.

A better job title usually isn’t all that exciting. I know that in other cultures when they’re trying to placate an employee – gotta give him something – they just make him a Vice President. Danes usually don’t use the titles they already have. They’re more interested in the substance of the work than their place in the hierarchy.

And depending on the employee, another popular motivator – the chance to have more power and responsibility – may not be exciting either.

Many Danes aren’t really eager to take on more responsibility at work, particularly if they have young children or grandchildren. They want to work hard and efficiently during office hours and then enjoy their free time.

As a matter of fact, in a survey last year, only 49% of Danish university students said they wanted a job with management responsibility, versus 77% in the USA.

So, what do Danish employees want? This is what I tell international managers.

What Danish employees really want
Danish employees want work they can be proud of. Having the chance to build a quality product, service, or project is exciting for Danes, who don’t like cheap merchandise. Doing work you feel is high quality or meaningful purpose of is an important part of job satisfaction in Denmark.

Danish employees want a feeling their voice is heard. Danish employees are expensive – and you have hired them for their expertise. They expect to have the ability to share that expertise, and see it incorporated into projects and products.

And Danish employees want personal development. The Danish educational system emphasizes lifelong learning. Even older employees are going to want to improve their skills with a couple of courses or industry meet-ups a year. This is seen as an investment in your team.

A good working atmosphere
The most important aspect of keeping your Danish employees happy and motivated is a good working atmosphere.

Danes do not want to work just to earn money – they want to enjoy their time on the job. There’s an expression I used to hear a lot when I was working in the US – another day, another dollar. That phrase contains a lot of resignation about having to spend your working hours doing something you don’t like.

I’ve never heard something similar in Denmark.

Danish employees want to look forward to coming to work in the morning. If you want them to feel motivated, make sure your team is a place where they can make that happen.


Kay Xander Mellish books

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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2024

Read more:
Decoding your Danish pay slip and understanding your Danish taxes
How to handle a Danish business meeting
What to wear to work in Denmark: Quiet colors, quality cut and fabric
Your first day at work in Denmark: Handshakes, passwords, and several people named Mette
Trailing spouses and working in Denmark
Networking in Denmark: 5 useful tips for making Danish business contacts
Secrets of socializing with your Danish colleagues
The Danish art of taking time off
Your free daily banana and five weeks off: Job benefits in Denmark
Why job titles aren’t that important in Denmark
The Danish job interview
Job search in Denmark: Your Danish cover letter plus LinkedIn plus two magic words
Job hunting in Denmark: Putting together your Danish CV
Fine-tuning your approach to the Danish job market
Finding a job in Denmark: Some tips from my experience
Is joining a union a waste of money? And what is the difference between a union and an A-kasse?
Will I ever be promoted? Plus, how to leverage your annual review
Taking sick days in Denmark, plus how to deal with stress

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