The Ambassador of Denmark on Danish culture and ‘All that we share’ 

“Maybe there’s more that brings us together
than we think” -TV 2

A couple of weeks ago a short film from Danish TV 2 went viral:

The film, ‘All that we share’, shows how we put groups of people into boxes – and how easy it is to focus instead on all that we share. Several groups of people enter a sports hall. Each takes their place in a box marked out in tape on the floor. The voiceover identifies the tribes:

“It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s ‘Us’ and there’s ‘Them’. The high earners, and those just getting by. Those we trust, and those we try to avoid.”

The film goes on to challenge our preconceptions, with humour and humanity. It shows how much we have in common across and between the boxes.

We warmed to the theme. It addresses what seems to us, at Belonging Space, to be the 21st century challenge: a sense of belonging that moves between several tribes, reaching out to share a common identity, creating interdependence. 

It’s a theme for our times, as independence of nations gathers popular appeal. In contrast, for business what’s proving more and more vital is interdependence. A shared sense of belonging across complex organisations is essential to ensure effective collaboration, fast innovation, and cross-discipline cohesion that avoids silos, as well as to uphold safety and shared ethics.

The film represents a particularly Danish sense of belonging. We smiled in recognition of some of these intrinsic qualities – the reasons why we so enjoy working with Danish companies.

So what can Denmark teach us about belonging and sharing?

We asked His Excellency the Ambassador of Denmark to the UK, Claus Grubewhether he recognised these aspects of Danish culture and sense of belonging:

[Belonging Space:]
Did you identify with the message, that in Denmark it’s easy to share beyond the lines drawn around specific social or business groups?
[The Ambassador of Denmark:]
Equality is a key value in Denmark. We want a society that is built on cohesion and see mutual respect as a central component in that ambition. It’s a component that is instilled from early age, and which the public institutions that are central for a Danish upbringing and education foster, e.g. most Danes go to kindergarten and part of the socialisation process is to learn to be a part of a very diverse group of people. It helps break down class barriers and the idea of social superiority. When that is said, also in Denmark most feel more comfortable with people who are like themselves. That is probably a universal human trait it’s difficult to overcome.

Is it generally true – do Danes have a good ability to move between and across different groups?
Yes, it pertains to the way people are brought up and educated in Denmark. Most kids in Denmark go to a public [i.e. State] school and they will inevitably meet many kids different from their own background. Class is not an issue in Denmark – in many families, you find both people who may have financial success and some that may be less well off. In Denmark, we believe that the individual has to find his or her own way in life and enjoy equal opportunities.

What can Denmark share with the world, and what does Danish business demonstrate, about doing this well?
You don’t find any country in the world where the distance between employer and employee is shorter. That is essentially the reason for the Danish success. It is fair to state that in a Danish company you’re not only expected to do your job; you’re expected to question ideas, be creative and take ownership of the direction of the company no matter on which level you are. Danish CEO’s are highly successful because they know that the best idea may not necessarily come from the highest paid …

What’s your view on any distinct Danish cultural characteristics and how they help business succeed?  (To share our perspective, a few characteristics we often observe when working with Danish companies: directness, warmth, resilience and camaraderie)
Danes are direct, and people coming from the UK may even consider the Danish way of communicating a bit rude. How is that directness possible without companies being bogged down by hurt feelings, etc.? Because the most important Danish resource is trust! One of the things travellers to Denmark still find peculiar is the fact that Danes place strollers with sleeping kids outside restaurants. It just shows the level of trust you find among Danes, and that trust makes it possible for us to be direct and demanding.

There may also be some characteristics in Danish culture which can harm a business? Or is there any darker side?
Lack of ambition! The reason why Danes are the happiest people in the world is due to our relatively low level of expectations. We get satisfied with little, and we don’t see ourselves as world conquerors. We are modest people with a lot of trust in each other.

We define a sense of belonging around a set of parameters: Ethos, Symbols, Habits, Interactions, Leadership, Community, Camaraderie, Accountability, Appreciation. What stands out most for you about Danish business style, and leadership, in the parameters of belonging? Everything ties together, but our ethos is built on trust as mentioned, and that makes interactions smoother and freer for everybody. It also means that an employee is met both with a high level of appreciation, but on the other hand that the level of accountability is very high in all kinds of business practice in Denmark.

What would be a symbol of belonging to Denmark, or a daily habit or ritual that marks Danish business culture?
The British always begin a meeting with a joke to make the atmosphere in the room easy and comfortable. The Danes on the other hand are not famous for their small-talking skills. It’s straight to the point. In addition, it is well known by now that ‘hygge’ is a Danish concept, but Danes are just as fond of efficiency. Nothing angers a Dane as when things don’t work smoothly or efficiently. A train running two minutes late can become a conversation topic; that mentality of efficiency characterizes Danish business life as well – short and productive meetings are always preferred.

While Denmark may be a smaller nation it has a big global impact. There’s a research paper from Copenhagen Business School on Danish leadership style, suggesting it is one of Denmark’s greatest exports. Any thoughts on this?
Danish soldiers are among the best in the world, recognised for one particular skill: Should the man in charge be impeded in performing his duties, the soldiers still make things work. That is Danish leadership in short: It’s all about empowering people, so they can perform on their own and to the best of their abilities. Danes are in general very independent, self-motivating and problem-solving in their approach. Danes would hate micromanagement, and they enjoy the freedom and the responsibility that follows. Leadership in Denmark is about setting goals and letting people work. A motivated employee is an employee taking care of his or her own tasks. That’s the thinking in the Danish leadership style. We think education and upbringing along the same lines: Motivation for learning should come from within the person and should not be imposed by way of external pressure.

Looking a little beyond business… Our two nations share a long history together, in which early conflict turned to interdependence and friendship. Any lessons for current times?
The friendship between our two countries is truly very strong, and our cultural ties, shared humour and view on life will continue. Even though we live in a globalised world, a lot is still determined by geographical closeness. In addition, history teaches us that sometimes countries or relations among countries have to go through rough patches in order to find stability and equilibrium again. That is also the case for the current times. This too shall pass with time.

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We are very grateful to the Ambassador for his openness in sharing his thoughts on the Danish sense of belonging. Denmark can rightly be proud of its cultural strengths. 

How easy is it, in your organisation, for people to see all that we share, beyond the boundaries of internal boxes?

The Danish Ambassador to the UK, Claus Grube, is one of Denmark’s most experienced diplomats. He took up his new position as Ambassador to the Court of St James on 1 October 2013. Since then, his home has been the Ambassador’s Residence in the Arne Jacobsen-designed embassy building in Sloane Street.

Belonging Space is a culture consultancy. We nurture a sense of belonging that helps your business succeed.

To be direct, we would love to work with more Danish companies. And any companies, whatever nationality, who want to create belonging beyond the boundaries of boxes.

We can help you to find all that you share.