Here in Scandinavia, we take pride in and value the Scandinavian style of leadership. International employees even seek employment in Scandinavian companies in Denmark and throughout the world for this very same reason. The Scandinavian leadership style is characterised by freedom with responsibility. This freedom is reflected in a short power distance and an obligation to voice your opinion, but not least international employees from countries with a different managerial style norm may risk feeling frustrated and insecure within these wide frameworks.

We fundamentally believe that the Scandinavian leadership style is able to create strong, sustainable results, and that employees ultimately thrive, develop further and contribute with more value in this context. Many of the international employees in our company deliberately chose to move to Denmark in order to work in a different, more value-adding way in which they are able to be their whole “self” at work.

We view the Scandinavian leadership style as a strength, as our shorter power distance make it easier for us as managers to truly see what the individual employee may need. As managers, we act with a different mindset, which enables us to adapt to the needs of our employees and not vice versa. We are thus able to create a space in which our international employees can learn to work in a new way.

So what kind of leader should you be to your international employees? We believe that the greatest service you can do to yourself AND your employees, both international and Danish, is to be aware of your own style of leadership and to adapt it to the individual employee in the unique context that exists in that moment. It is a highly demanding exercise that requires a high level of self-insight and recognition of your own leadership style, and luckily, we see that the leaders in many Scandinavian companies are increasingly beginning to work on their awareness of their own way to be a leader.

Turn off the auto pilot

The point is, that as a leader to international employees, you cannot simply continue to do as you have always done. Furthermore, you cannot treat all your employees in the same way. You cannot even treat the same employee the same way every time as the employee’s need for leadership will change from one task to the other and from one situation to the other. The same goes for your Danish employees if you wish to be the best possible leader to them. In other words, you have to turn off your auto pilot, and you have to constantly reflect on your own style of leadership.

We have often led teams consisting of several nationalities, e.g. American, British, Turkish and German employees, and the very broad and delegating way of leading Danish employees does not always work well for them in the beginning. They are often used to receiving highly specific instructions, almost orders, regarding their work tasks, which is not the preferred style with Danish employees.

“There was clearly a need for an adjustment period when I moved to Denmark. My role at my workplace in the US was clearly defined, and my work tasks were clearly delineated.  In Denmark, the boundaries for my role are more fluid, and it is expected that I take responsibility for my work and help define my role. If I see a need, there is also a clear expectation that I independently take responsibility for fulfilling that need. I very much appreciate the freedom with responsibility and the support I receive in defining my own role, but it took a while to find my footing.” Graham Nesbit is from the US and has worked in Denmark for two years.

If you only provide a British or German employee with highly general directions for how to carry out a task, the employee in question may feel insecure and feel that you are not doing a very job as a leader. Which you will probably never be told as foreign employees often focus more on hierarchy, and it is not customary to criticise the leader for his or her leadership.  This is both good and bad. In Danish workplaces, you can sometimes have quite time-consuming discussions, but the deep reflection often leads to a stronger result in the end.

It takes a high level of awareness as leader to be able to turn off your auto pilot. You really have to know yourself and to be able to understand your own mindset and behaviour. It is a highly interesting field to be in as leader; you can bring yourself into play, be conscious of your own style as leader and help develop both the company and the individual.

Company culture trumps national culture

In reality, we find that something outweighs national differences among leaders and employees, and this is the company culture. A strong company culture is a prerequisite for your international employees to succeed. And it is important to be aware of your own role as leader in this context. At the end of the day, the culture is defined by the leaders’ mindset, behaviour and not least cultural norms and consequently who you hire, how you develop your employees, and what you reward them for. For this reason, a Danish company culture will therefore often be characterised by the national norms and values that the company’s leaders and employees bring with them.

Ask yourselves: Do you have the right culture in your company for promoting performance among your employees regardless of their national background? You can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your company culture support your strategy?
  • Does your company culture support the mindset and behaviour necessary to achieve results?
  • Do you provide your employees with the systems and tools that enable the right behaviour?

Of course, this does not mean that you should be blind to the cultural differences that people come with, and an adjustment period will undoubtedly be necessary for both leader and employee in which you get to know each other. But if you as leader constantly try to navigate according to individual national differences instead of your company culture, you will ultimately do both your employees and your company a disservice.

Instead, we recommend that you cooperate closely in your management team on ensuring that your company culture is clearly communicated in all touch points with your employees, and that your leaders at all levels have a conscious dialogue on your company culture, e.g. by being clear on your company values and the match with your employee’s values.

“I have previously worked for German companies, both in Germany and England. In both countries, the company culture was very much rule-based with very narrow degrees of freedom. In contrast to this, my current Danish workplace is far more value-based. There is a strong focus on employing employees with values that match our company culture. In return, we enjoy a very high degree of freedom and wide boundaries for defining our roles. This can be incredibly liberating or incredibly frightening depending on what kind of person you are.” Sina Gauss is from Germany and has worked in Denmark for almost two years.

If you want an employee to exhibit a desired behaviour, it is crucial that your company culture is clearly manifested. As a workplace, it may therefore be a good idea to look into whether the framework is right: e.g. whether your KPI and bonus systems promote the desired behaviour – also if your international employees follow their wording to the letter. It can be hugely beneficial to engage both Danish and international employees in making your culture more specific, in verbalising it and making it unambiguous – this is usually the best way to become aware of any pitfalls and to make each other more aware of your culture.

Keep your culture in mind when hiring

And this is your company culture we are talking about, not your national culture. It is crucial that you are completely clear on what type of person would fit into your company culture. The personality and values will ultimately always outweigh both the resume and national background. And yes, you may be more likely to find employees looking for structure and clear boundaries in Germany than in Denmark. But on the other hand, those German employees that are actively looking for work in a Danish company may to an even higher extent than many Danish employees be people that thrive with a Scandinavian leadership style and the freedom to develop your full potential. And they will be able to contribute to the development of the Scandinavian leadership and add valuable dimensions to your company culture.

More benefits than disadvantages

We have no doubt that diversity at the workplace benefits everyone, no matter if you are talking gender, age or nationality. The more viewpoints we can combine, the stronger insights and stronger solutions will we ultimately be able to achieve. From our perspective, these kinds of benefits clearly outweigh any challenges such as cultural differences or language barriers.

But in order to get the full potential out of your international employees, you need three things:

1) You have to turn off your auto pilot and use conscious and situational leadership across national boundaries, and this requires self-insight.

2) You also need to ensure that your company culture promotes the desired behaviour.

3) Be conscious about your company culture and your values when hiring new employees, both Danish and international, in order to ensure a good fit with the personality profile of the potential employees.

You will become the best leader you can be to your international employees by being aware of yourself, your own leadership style and your company culture – and by treating your international employees as people with unique and constantly changing needs and competences.