mistake Danish managers make working with international talent

The #1 Mistake Danish managers make working with international talent

It isn’t what you think

You put a lot of time and effort into recruiting a talent from outside of Denmark…yet when this sought-after professional arrives in Denmark, things don’t go quite as planned.

Your new hire is rather silent in meetings and seems a little afraid to speak his mind. He seems to wait for instructions instead of jumping into the job and proactively finding ways to add value to the team and move your projects forward. He rarely challenges you, his manager, and seems overly concerned with getting approval for every step of the project.

Did you hire the wrong person? No, you’ve simply made the #1 mistake Danish managers make when they hire internationals.

You are expecting your newcomer to act like a Dane.

Brought up to challenge authority

Brought up in the Grundtvig system, Danes are trained to ask questions and challenge authority. They’ve done it since they were children. On the job, they question their managers and poke and prod at the established way of doing things. (This is the basis of Denmark’s innovation culture, and one of the reasons this small country is so successful.)

One reason Danes feel comfortable speaking out in part because of the extensive Danish social welfare system. If we question managerial decisions so vigorously that we need to find another job, we always have the pillow of the social welfare state to fall back on.  We will have two years’ A-kasse, and our health care and children’s schooling will be entirely unaffected.

Internationals feel more vulnerable

International talents don’t have the security of the welfare state behind them, in particular if they’re not EU residents, as I point out in my book, “How to Work in Denmark: Tips for Finding a Job, Succeeding at Work, and Understanding your Danish Boss.”

If they’re here on a work visa and don’t have permanent residency, they’ll always feel a bit vulnerable. A big disagreement with management could mean an embarrassing return home.

In addition, these talents are likely to have been brought up in a competitive education system that was much more hierarchical. Good grades and advancement meant echoing what the teacher was saying, not challenging it.

This expectation continues into the workplace. Many internationals are accustomed to – and sometimes crave – a structure where roles are clear and the boss is boss. The manager delivers orders, the team carries them out, and then the team awaits their next orders.  The hierarchy is unquestioned and projects and goals are outlined precisely.

When these talented professionals come to Denmark, they expect something similar, even though the Danes are specialists in “freedom with responsibility” and indirect commands (“It could be a good idea to get this done by Friday…”). This results in misunderstandings and, sometimes, resentment.

What you should do

When I hold presentations or workshops in Denmark, I like to speak to mixed groups of Danes and internationals. Everyone needs to examine their expectations, including the Danes, and I try to do this in an informative and entertaining manner, with a lot of storytelling from my experience.

While internationals get up to speed with the Danish way of doing things, Danes need to be more explicit with internationals than they might be with fellow Danes. Expectations that might seem obvious to you aren’t always obvious to someone from another part of the world. For example, should you work until midnight to meet a deadline? Yes, in many business cultures. No, in Denmark.

In addition, talents newly arrived in Denmark need much more feedback than Danes, particularly positive feedback. They are far from home and not entirely certain they are doing a good job,  so the Danish “no news is good news” approach can leave them feeling deeply insecure.

When your new talent arrives, invest in cultural training if you can, and make sure to schedule regular short meetings with them to make sure they understand your expectations  – and to make sure you understand where they are coming from.

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