Opinion: Why are there no mountains in Denmark? – The Post

Opinion: Why are there no mountains in Denmark?

Cultural insights on hierarchy in the workplace in Denmark, India, Germany and the US

No mountains, just the odd pile of rocks (photo: Unsplash.com)
June 19th, 2019 4:03 pm| by Jinu Jayapalan

One of the most intriguing things in Denmark is that it is very hard for a new employee to identify who their new boss is simply by observing the actions of his or her new employer.

For example, in a work environment you might observe a lot of arguments taking place over an extended period of time. Consequently, you may ask yourself: “Is there anyone here who is going to take some control?”

If you are from a highly hierarchical society and you have relocated to work in Denmark or Sweden, one of the ‘Scandinavian Shocks’ you are going to experience is understanding and adapting to their ‘flat structure’ system.

One expat once asked a Dane why there are no mountains in Denmark. “We don’t have any,” the Dane replied with a smile and continued: ‘Because we have a flat structure at work and in nature.”

Career suicide in some cultures
One Chinese guy working in a small recruitment organisation in Zealand shared his experience.

When he joined the company, he was surprised to see that his colleagues called their boss by his first name. He also witnessed many times the employees questioning the boss on certain team decisions.

“You call this coziness?” he exclaimed. “But If I took this approach back to my country, it would be a disaster for my professional life.”

The boss who does odd jobs
When I was in Copenhagen I used to visit my friend working as a sales assistant in the Swedish clothes shop Gudrun Sjoeden.
Once she introduced me to one of her colleagues who was knitting something next to her.

She told me that it was her boss. I was surprised to hear that because I had seen her many times there working as a cashier, occasionally as a sales assistant, and sometimes just cleaning up or arranging the clothes.

I originally assumed she was just a colleague because she was doing all the other jobs normal employees do. This ‘egalitarian way’ of working in Denmark and Sweden is a key element of the concept of ‘hygge’ in the workplace.

Keep ‘them upstairs’ informed
Also, in the United States, generally speaking, the boss has a firm but friendly approach to his or her employees and ‘individuality’ is prioritised more than ‘group harmony’. First names are used as a common practice.

In contrast, an American team who visited their Indian counterparts in Chennai found it hard to understand the strict borders that existed between their Indian managers and team members.

When the Americans send emails with some requests, their Indian managers reply by cc’ing a lot of people. When the Americans asked about this, their Indian counterparts replied that it was important that their managers were informed about any correspondence they had received, and that managers should also be involved in any discussions concerning the request made via email from their American colleagues.

Suits US, but not Germany
Another interesting challenge for the Americans was the pronunciation of the Indian names that led to them finding a creative solution.

They quickly made some nicknames. So Rajesh Ravindran became ‘Rocky’, Mahesh Bhatia was named ‘Mac’, Padmanabhan Krishnamoorthy was called ‘Paddy’,  and Santhosh George became ‘Sandy’ etc.

However, some people from other cultures do not like the idea of getting a nickname. For example, the same Indian company had a major German client visit and when she introduced herself as Dr Hilde Mueller, one of the team members asked her “Shall we call you Hildy?”

From the look on her face it was noticeable that she wasn’t happy and she politely said no to the request. Therefore, in Germany, it is very important to use their titles when necessary and the use of nicknames is not appreciated.

Always find a way to respect 
I was discussing the Danish ‘flat structure’ in the workplace with one manager who works for a leading Indian IT outsourcing company.

During our conversation he shared his experience of how he tried to implement a more egalitarian style within his team. He began by removing the necessity for his employees to address him as ‘Sir’.

With this objective in mind, he called a team meeting and told them that everyone should call him ‘Manu’ from that moment on. After saying that there was a silence; some people murmured but didn’t say anything to him.

“And the result was”, he continued with a smile, “that they now started to call me by adding ‘Ji’ at the end of my name, like Manuji.  In Hindi, the suffix ‘ji’ will automatically make the name respected.

Some other team members feel a bit friendlier and called him ‘Manu bhai’. The Hindi word ‘Bhai’ is used as a suffix to the name to form an affectionate form of address to an older person. So even if he tried to implement the new form of address, the team members still managed to find a way to maintain their respect for the hierarchy.

A country of change
Nevertheless, it is very noticeable that India has changed drastically compared to yesteryear.

The need for ‘cultural sensitivity’ training, as well as an understanding with regard to the differences in leadership styles and appropriate work behaviours and etiquettes, has become more necessary than ever before. 




Jinu Jayapalan

Jinu is the general manager – South India for ICUnet Group, a leading German consulting company headquartered in Passau, Munich. ICUnet has a global presence and provides high-quality intercultural training in over 75 cultures to corporate and expatriates, global mobility services, and strategic consulting services including market expansion, joint ventures, and mergers & acquisitions. Jinu obtained an international MBA from the Hochschule Bremen University of Applied Sciences, Germany and an MSc in International Business Development and Consulting from Novancia Business School, France. He can be reached at jinu.jayapalan@gmail.com or Linkedin.com/in/JinuJayapalan