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Opinion

The secret to leading Danes, part II
Signe Biering

November 22nd, 2023


Signe Biering is an executive coach, trained in psychology, with a background in diplomacy.

Signe Biering is an executive coach, trained in psychology, with a background in diplomacy. Photo: Signe Biering

In my June 2023 opinion piece, I bluntly told you “it is not about you!” when your Danish colleagues would rather not have (you as) a boss. 

In today’s piece, I would like to dive deeper into the secret to leading Danes.

We know of the flat hierarchy of many Danish companies. But do not forget that power is real – it’s just not always evident from job titles. 

Let’s look at how people carry themselves in meetings: The powerful usually choose to sit close to mid table. They will speak early and influence the agenda. They will hold the room’s attention and will get support through nods and friendly body language.

The more powerful may not necessarily be the one who speaks the most but someone whose words are being repeated. “I want to just add to what Jesper just said …” is a good indication that Jesper is (close to) the boss. 

Different from meetings in Brussels or Bangalore? Maybe not. But if you want to study power dynamics, then you have to be very observant of who knows who, who is invited to which meeting and who is tasked with core projects. These elements are more important when the hierarchy is flatter. You need to discern more subtle signals, when the organigram is unhelpful. 

The loss of power can happen in surprising ways: In Denmark, at an all-hands meeting, CEOs can lose serious clout if they are not able to argue convincingly when employees raise issues. It may be an intern – if the complaint is well argued and the response is not, then there is a loss of power. Actually, particularly if the intern argues well. Danes love The Emperor’s New Clothes.

As a note of warning: No matter how lowly your position, you cannot take a morfar (a snooze) during an important meeting in Denmark. If what is going on at the center of the table has to do with your area of expertise, you will be expected to argue your case – irrespective of your rank – in front of everyone. If you were present, your department was present. 

If you are a middle/top manager – how might you lose power in a Danish company setting? One way would be if you take the floor at a meeting without adding substance – just blowing hot air. That will weaken you, relative to the others at your own level.

Another way could be if you are too direct in a wrong way. Danes are known for being crude and direct, but there is a catch. If you confront a colleague, or even worse, an employee below your level, it is judged harshly.  

In general, emotional control is a big deal. You should never raise your voice, as it is a fast way to lose respect and power. At the same time, Danes can share rather embarrassing personal stories, as a sort of self-deprecation without losing respect. It is elegant when done well – but do not try it yourself, as it takes years to be embarrassing in the right way. 

How can you navigate in this? It takes time. Be patient and grow your knowledge of Denmark in tandem with your self-awareness. Which is often done through leadership coaching, as it happens. 

About

Signe Biering

After 20 years in the Danish diplomatic service, including stints in India, China and Israel as deputy ambassador, Signe Biering is turning her diplomatic binoculars onto the intriguing Danes. She is an executive coach and talks about how to lead internationals in Denmark. Follow her on LinkedIn.


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