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What can Denmark and the US learn from each other?

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2021-06-17

This is an article written by Kay Xander Mellish

What can Denmark and the US learn from each other?

Danish working culture is known around the world for its egalitarian “flat hierarchy” and good work life balance. And US working culture is known for its ambition, dynamism, and ability to integrate newcomers from many cultures. 

What can Denmark and the US learn from each other?

As a citizen of both countries, I’m quite familiar with their many positives – and a few negatives.

Denmark sees employee as “whole person”

One of the things Denmark does best is taking care of employees, who are generally seen to be just as important as customers. Team members aren’t asked to work more hours than they’re paid for, or to skip any of the five weeks’ vacation required by law. Parental leave is generous.

Danish working culture is thoughtful about employees’ “softer” needs after as well. For example, on Christmas Eve – the high point of Denmark’s holiday season – city buses stop running from 5pm until 11pm. This is so bus drivers can go home and eat Christmas Eve dinner with their families. 

The US too often demands that employees sacrifice their personal lives to work, as each boss does his or her best to maximize short-term results. Danish working culture is better at seeing each team member as a “whole person” – which is why their age, family structure, and personal hobbies are often a part of job interviews and listed on CVs.

That’s much less likely in the US, in part because employers worry about discrimination lawsuits.

US integrates newcomers better

The US is further down the road of multiculturalism than Denmark, and despite ongoing challenges, it does a much better job of integrating immigrants into the job market. 

US working culture offers newcomers more room for advancement – many American CEOS were born elsewhere and two presidents in a row (Obama and Trump) were the children of immigrants, as is current vice-president Kamala Harris. 

Most Danish managers are ethnic Danish, and in private industry, most of them are men. According to the OECD’s 2019 statistics, 26.8% of managers in Denmark are women, compared to 40.7% in the US.

This relative lack of diversity means that in some companies there is just one way of doing things – the Danish way. And the Danish way is subject to “the law of Jante”, which mandates modesty and sometimes punishes ambition. This can make Danes reluctant to admit to ambition or enthusiasm or celebrate success on the job, because they don’t want to be perceived as bragging.  It can also make them appear hypercritical, because they’ll share negative feedback but avoid sharing the positive.

One thing Danes do right, however, is giving their employees a lot of room to innovate on the job. Danish bosses tend to outline the assignment at hand, the timeline, and the budget, and then step back and give skilled employees the freedom to approach the challenge in the way they think best. 

To a Dane, US bosses can seem like micromanagers, with a hands-on approach that is a little exhausting for both boss and employee. Yet many Americans enjoy the inspiration and guidance of a hands-on boss. 

Both Denmark and the US have effective, energetic business cultures, but they have plenty to learn from each other. 

What can the US learn from Denmark?

  • See employees as a “whole person” outside work, and limit working hours
  • Give employees more independence on the job to make them feel more confident

What can Denmark learn from the US?

  • Become more open to internationals in the workplace, and let them advance
  • Celebrate success and give more positive feedback to suppliers and colleagues

Kay Xander Mellish is an A-speakers/Athenas speaker and the author of the books “Working with Americans: Tips for Danes” “Working with Danes: Tips for Americans” “How to Work in Denmark” and “How to Live in Denmark.” A US-DK dual citizen, she lives in Copenhagen. Book Kay for a presentation to your group or organization – either in-person or virtual.

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