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Category 2

Flat hierarchies

April 9, 2021

The positives and negatives of a high trust Danish workplace

Denmark and other Nordic countries are celebrated for their flat organisations and inclusive work practices, and for a good reason. But what are the downsides of this approach? Why do some people coming in from a more hierarchical culture find it demotivating to work this way?

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Picture this: you walk into a Danish company’s meeting room, but as you look around you cannot tell who is the boss and who is an intern. This is a rather common occurrence in the Scandinavian job market due to the low power distance and the flat hierarchical structure widespread in the Danish and Nordic culture.

But what are the downsides of this approach? Why do some people coming in from a more hierarchical culture find it demotivating to work this way?

Sam and Josefine speak with Chris Shern and Nico Blier-Silvestri about their experience coming to Denmark from abroad, and Danish architect Josefine Bols about her time in Japan.

They discuss how trust can be built, why non-Danes feel less comfortable asking for help at work and why, ultimately, most organisations want to strive to getting to “the Danish way”. 

They also explain how those outside of Denmark can generate their own high trust work ecosystem.

A Foundation of Trust 

Two of this week's guests, Chris Shern and Nicolas Blier-Silvestri, are accomplished managing directors and CEOs for international teams.

Both of them point towards trust as a significant component of the low power distance in Denmark.

“You don't build a flat hierarchical organisation, if you don't have trust in your corporate culture.”

What is Expected of Trust 

Trust is a loose term that can be applied and interpreted in a lot of directions. In the context of the work culture in Denmark, it comes down to three major things:

  • You are entrusted to be able to do your job
  • That you will communicate and ask for help if trouble arises 
  • That you are allowed (and encouraged) to voice your opinion, even if you do not get to call the final decision
“From personal experience, working outside of Denmark in many other countries, and different places, that's not what you see a lot.” 

Josefine also highlights the relationship between what you promise and what you are entrusted with. She explains that people in a work environment will trust you to complete your task or project to the best of your ability, and on the other side, are you able to do what is required of you? The trust people put in you, and your abilities are connected, but they do not have to be the same.

Scary and Empowering 

Nico, who has worked in a wide range of countries, was surprised by the direct and trustful approach he was met with when he was first hired by the company Trustpilot in 2012. He described it as a learning curve that he had to get adjusted to:

I think the big learning curve was the hundred percent trust from the start. The idea of "you come in, we trust you. I mean, we hired you." was surprising to me.


Opposite Ends of the Spectrum  

The balance between trust and distrust is a hard line to walk, especially when starting in an all-new job position. Too much trust can lead to a feeling of being left on your own with no direction, but too little trust and everything you do has to be monitored or checked before completion. As Sam explained:

“I've had work experience where there's that initial: “Okay. I still need to kind of feel you out a bit and I'm not going to allow you to send this email and every time you do I'm going to have to check it””

People have to be guided in the right direction without feeling like they are being belittled.


Ask for Help

If you are in a situation where you feel like you are unequipped to complete a task or lack direction, ask for help. Trust is expected to go both ways, and therefore you are allowed and encouraged to ask for help when you need it. The employer trusts that you will ask for help if you have a task you are struggling with. Nico told Sam how this trust comes from vulnerability

“If you have a question, or if you feel that there's some challenges that you can't handle alone, that's trust in you as coming forward, and not considered a weakness”


The Low Power Distance in Practice

A situation where the flat power structure comes to show is in the meeting room. During the interview, Chris told us about the unforgettable experience of his first Scandinavian business meeting. During the meeting, Chris, a trainee at the time, had sat quietly and simply listened, but when a short break hit, suddenly the boss turned to him and asked for his opinion on the subject. 

“Danish culture is if you are in the meeting, you are there to chip in with knowledge because otherwise, why are you attending?”

Josefine, originally from Denmark, had the exact opposite experience as a junior employee in the UK. It took her a while to realise that her bosses did not expect her to chip in with her knowledge and thoughts. She was met with mixed results, as some employers found her opinions unwanted, but others were impressed.

Questions and Answers

As Nico grew up and worked in France, he was taught never to question his boss. The culture there implied that if you ask questions, you show signs of weakness. If he wanted to move forward in his career, he had to accept that his boss was always right. But this is not what he experienced when moving to Denmark. 

In Denmark you are expected to and encouraged to ask questions if you are in doubt. Your boss will not be monitoring you, so you need to reach out if you want clarification or instructions. 

If you ask, you will not be viewed as incompetent; rather, you will instead be perceived as curious and interested. And more often than not, others in the room might have the same concerns but are afraid to voice them. But if you show that trust, it will build better relations. Trust bridge  trust. 

Constructive Criticism 

This culture of asking questions and participating in conversations across the hierarchy has it's perks and it's downfalls. 

When everything is streamlined and everyone knows their role and tasks, the process can be more efficient. Compared to the Danish model, where the process will often be questioned, debated and even criticised, it simply takes longer. 

 Another issue occurs when we give and receive criticism. It can at times be difficult to hear your ideas and proposals be taken apart and debated. It can feel like you are being challenged and shut down especially when the debate is either not kept civil or constructive. 

"This sort of fear of being seen as an idiot in the workplace meant I didn't want to come up and I didn't want to be vulnerable."

But the debate and the feedback are both important parts of the danish work space. This process is essential because, to Danes, thorough communication and collaboration ensures the best results and end products.

"It is important to remember the reason you might criticise an idea is the pursuit of truth. You're doing this because we all want to get to the ’right’  answer."

If you want to get better at giving (and receiving) feedback, then this video is for you. It does a good job at taking you through the basics on how to apply constructive criticism in your day to day.

Trust and feedback go hand in hand. We need to be able to trust that we all have the project and each-other's best interest at heart. It can be tough to learn, especially on things that we work hard on, but giving and receiving feedback is an invaluable skill to learn

Story Time: Dirty Dishes

Our third guest, Josefine Bols, is a Danish architect. A part of her education was an abroad internship, on a remote island in Japan. The cultural differences she experienced during her stay were challenging and specifically one interaction has stayed with her. 

During their stay she and a fellow student were called to a long winded meeting with their translator For two hours, they were lectured for indecent behaviour during lunchtime. This indecent behaviour was apparently cleaning their dishes. 

According to their translator, this was unacceptable behaviour. To Josefine she had simply tried to help and be polite. 

In most small and medium-sized companies in Denmark, dishes are a communal thing; everyone helps by doing their part of the work. In larger companies with a cafeteria, it is common to bring your dishes to a tray or a station, so it is easier for the cleaning personnel to handle. So, if you leave your dishes at the table, you are considered impolite. 

But in Japan, Josefine was scolded and seen as impolite. To the cleaning personnel, Josefine and her fellow student were insulting them for insinuating they were not doing their job properly - or simply taking away their work.

I think it was a question of taking their job. They were afraid that by having us do the dishes, we would more or less underestimate their positions as waitress and waitresses in the cafe. And it would make them look lazy.


Managing and Being Managed

Leading in the Wings

Nico highlights that employees need to trust that their employer knows what they are doing. If you are used to an environment where you are not asked for your opinion, the Nordic way can be a turnoff or a sign of weak leadership. 

The employee might say: “What do you mean you're asking for my opinion? I'm not supposed to have an opinion. I'm supposed to just do what I'm told.” 

Someone with this cultural background might see a Danish employer as weak or find there is a lack of strong leadership. These people look at their boss and expect that they are in that position because they are the best at their job.

An example of this can be found in Italy, where 60% said that their boss should be able to do the employee’s job. Compared to Denmark, only 7% agreed with that claim. 

To summarise, Italian workers want their boss to be the best and most qualified for the position. In Denmark, the employer will hire people who have different skill sets than themselves to fulfil the task that they cannot complete themselves. 

The downside to this is that a Danish employer will not always have the skills and experience to help or guide a struggling employee. Whereas an Italian employer is someone you are supposed to learn from and look up to, and they will likely be familiar with any problem that you stumble upon.

Sam and Josefine summarise the dilemma of management quite well here:

Sam: “If you're going to your boss saying: “Cool, right, boss, what are we doing?” And they said. “I dunno, let's have a chat.” I would go, “who is this person? What’s the point of them here. If they're not even going to tell us with what to do.” And I can see that being quite a struggle for people. 
Josefine: “But to turn that around. As a boss, I would think that if I said, “Well, how should we do this?” And you did not have an opinion or an idea that you could chip in with, I would go: “Why are you and my team. Obviously, you don't have anything to bring to the table.”

Herding Cats

Why? If there is one thing the Danes will do, it is to ask this simple question. During their interviews, both Nico and Chris highlight the little three-letter word as a source of great frustration to the non-Danish employer of a Danish team. 

When I started to have responsibility over staff I expected- you know, I was the boss and I expected people to listen to what I said. But it didn't work like that. At all. It was kind of like herding cats in a way. I would say okay, we're going to do this. And then they just looked and went: “Why?”

The team would start a discussion by themselves, question the method and the approach. In the end Chris knew that he got the final say, but people expected to be heard.

In Denmark you cannot just tell people what to do and then just expect it to happen, no matter your expertise and qualifications. You almost have to pitch every idea, convince people why your approach is the best way to do it. Danish people need to understand the why in order to see the point and feel a purpose with their task. If they are not persuaded, if they do not trust in the idea, you will be met with more resistance.

But many find this to be a waste of time, and the process of debate and arguments as unnecessary and time consuming.

Return of the Vikings

Our guest Chris Shern, is the co-author of the book 'Return of the Vikings', a book advocating for the implementation of the Nordic way of Leadership. In the book Chris and Henrik goes into depth on some of the subjects that we touched on in this episode of WTD.

They argue that as the world continues to change and evolve it is crazy to assume that one person or a selected group can have the solutions to every problem. Therefore we need to implement managing styles that have the space to include people from a diverse range of experiences and skill sets.

While it can be hard to take the first steps in changing a culture, it is possible. When internationalising an organisation you always have to take a lot of different considerations.

Some things you can do is to develop your own subculture in your organisation and have a written set of soft rules that everyone within the organisation agrees to. It can include things such as feedback guidelines, or agree that everyone should understand the why, before making big decisions.

We don't need to agree. We need to align

Main Takeaways

A Non-Danish Employee- 

  • Should not be afraid of speaking up and participating in meetings and debates. Your opinion is likely valued and wanted in your team 
  • Don’t be afraid of asking questions. You will most likely not be considered unintelligent or unprofessional. Rather in a Danish or Nordic context, you will be seen as interested and curious. 
  • Should know that if someone questions or starts a debate, it is not done to critique you as a person, it is to help develop the idea or project together

A Danish Employee- 

  • Should look out for their non-Danish coworkers. Things that are obvious to you, might not be for them, so make sure you are all on the same page. They might not always reach out for help, because they don't want to seem incompetent

A Danish Manager- 

  • Should consider that an international team will consist of different communication methods, and not everyone will be comfortable with the Danish way from the start 
  • Try to engage with your international team in more ways than just a debate and/or meeting. Giving out tasks (like presentations) where they have some preparation time, can help them feel more confident and you might just see a different side of them 

A Non-Danish Manager- 

  • Should remember that when their team members challenge or question opinion, it is not to be rude or disrespectful. It is natural for Danes to debate and they do not mean to question authority - they just want to engage 

What do you think?

If you haven't already, then you might enjoy listening to the show which you can do (for free) by subscribing to What The Denmark on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. 

We’d love to hear about your experience with trust (or the lack of) in your workplace. Head over to our Facebook group where you can read what others have to say, as well as letting us know what you think.

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