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Danish Feedback Culture Seen from Within and from Outside

– Plus 5 Tips on How to Create a Culturally Intelligent Feedback Culture

Feedback can develop and motivate employees, solve problems, improve processes – and create a great deal of value for companies at almost every level.

That is, if your company actually has a feedback culture that works!

But it can be a long and difficult process to create a well-functioning feedback culture.

And if your company operates across borders or has employees from different cultural backgrounds, it’s even more complex. Because there are vastly different traditions for when and how you should give feedback in different work cultures around the world.

In this blog post, we put the role that feedback plays in Danish work culture in the spotlight.

Our focus is on the feedback that you as a manager give to your employees (feedback from employee to manager and between colleagues is also interesting but will have to wait for another blog post!).

First, we examine Danish feedback culture seen from within, i.e., as Danish managers and employees understand and experience it.

Then we examine Danish feedback culture seen from the outside – as experienced by international employees who collaborate with Danes.

We end with 5 tips on how your company can create a culturally intelligent feedback culture.

Danish feedback culture seen from within

So, what does Danish feedback culture look like from within – that is, how do Danish managers and employees understand and experience it?

At C3 Consulting, we dug deep into this topic. We sifted through books and articles, talked to feedback experts, conducted informal interviews in our network and asked around on social media. 

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of variations in feedback culture across industries, disciplines, companies, and teams. Not to mention, differences in personalities, competencies, and preferred management style among individual managers.

That said, there are also distinct and consistent characteristics. You can read about them below.

‘No news is good news’

Trust, equality and 'freedom with responsibility' are important values in Danish workplace culture.

In addition, they are values that can mean that managers in Denmark do not interfere in their employees’ tasks.

When you, as a Danish manager, give an employee a task, you expect the employee to continue with the task themselves.

You basically trust that the employee will do a good job. If you find that the employee has made a mistake, you say so. But otherwise, it’s up to the employees themselves to come to you if they have questions or need feedback.

‘No news is good news’ applies both ways as follows:

  • As a Danish manager, if you don’t hear from an employee, you assume that they don’t need feedback.
  • As a Danish employee, if you don’t hear from your manager, you assume that they think you’re doing a good job.

And do Danish employees thrive on this feedback model?

Many do.

Because for many Danish employees, it’s good to be given the responsibility to continue with tasks yourself. And the opposite is a bad thing – if your manager constantly interferes in your work, is it because the manager don’t trust you to be able to handle it yourself?

If you need feedback on a task, then just call your manager over. And then you can both clarify things along the way. Preferably not so that the manager sets out detailed instructions on what the next step is. It’s far better that they coach you so you can figure it out for yourself.

So, feedback from manager to employee is handled on a day-to-day basis, at the employee's initiative, when they need it.

And preferably with an informal tone and a little humor too. Because it fits in well with the Danish value that we’re all equal and we must always have an equal dialogue. Even if one has the title of manager and the other doesn’t!

But there are also Danish employees who are less enthusiastic about the ‘No news is good news' model.

They get frustrated because they only hear from their manager when they’ve made a mistake. They don’t feel that they’re being recognized for their efforts. And they find it stressful that their manager doesn’t set a clearer framework and direction for the work.

Negative feedback is best given in private – and is perhaps less direct than Danish work culture is known for

Danes have a reputation for saying things very directly, and this also applies to the workplace.

And rightly so. Because compared to the preferred communication style in large parts of the world, the typical Danish style is considered to be VERY direct.

This certainly applies to feedback in relation to solving daily tasks that we’ve been looking at earlier.

But what if the Danish manager is really dissatisfied – and perhaps even unhappy about an employee's general performance?

This is where we put a lesser-known part of Danish work culture in the spotlight: conflict avoidance.

Although most Danish managers and employees love to say things directly, there comes a point when it’s not nice anymore. Where the negative feedback breaks with ‘hygge’ that is loved by so many Danes. And where it breaks with the ideal of equality because the boss suddenly needs to be more authoritative towards the employee.

Now, of course, managers are individual. And this applies to Danish managers too.

At one end of the spectrum, you find managers who are so conflict-avoidant that they completely fail to give the negative feedback they want to give.

At the other end of the spectrum, you find managers who openly criticize an employee in front of a group of colleagues. However, the 'Danish workplace consensus' is that this isn’t a good way to go.

Most Danish leaders will give negative feedback in person and use less direct and more diplomatic language than they would normally.

And the ideal is clearly that negative feedback should be constructive: As a manager, rather than telling your employees off, coach them on how they can change in the right direction. How the ideal plays out in practice, of course, depends on the individual leader's competencies!

Positive feedback is also best given one on one

Here’s a story from an ordinary Danish workplace:

The boss introduced something called a 'bragathon' in the weekly team meeting.

This is where employees can talk about a success they’ve had or a task they’ve managed to solve particularly well.

Now, there’s usually a lot of talking going on in Danish meetings, but when it comes to things such as ‘bragathons’, the silence can be deafening.

Here we need to look at the so-called 'Jantelov' (Law of Jante), which plays an important role in Danish culture, and in the workplace too. The essence of Jantelov is that you mustn’t think that you’re anything special. And you should definitely not think that you’re better than anybody else!

So, it will typically not go down well with colleagues if you reel off all your own achievements.

It's more acceptable if it's a colleague saying something nice about you.

But if your manager praises you in front of a group of colleagues, a lot of employees would also find it a bit awkward. So, when it comes to positive feedback in Danish workplaces, it’s typically safer for managers and employees to do it one on one.

The annual performance review (rarely loved by boss or employee!)

Before we conclude the characteristics of Danish feedback culture as seen from within, we’ll cover the annual performance review – known in Denmark as Medarbejderudviklingssamtale (MUS).

In Denmark, all public workplaces must hold MUS interviews. It’s not mandatory in private workplaces, but if you don’t use MUS interviews, you probably conduct another form of annual employee interview/performance evaluation. Typically, there’s a form involved that the manager fills out before the interview.

In short, the aim is to have a good talk about the employee's development and well-being, for the benefit of both the employee and the company.

But if you ask Danish employees, you’ll find that the MUS interview is not loved by many. This includes managers too.

This is because the MUS conversation can end up as a rigid and artificial affair that doesn’t really align with the Danish workplace ideals of equality and ‘freedom with responsibility’.

Often, both parties would prefer to stick to informal ad-hoc feedback that the employee can get from their manager on a day-to-day basis when needed.

Danish feedback culture seen from outside

Now let’s change perspective and examine how Danish feedback culture is experienced by non-Danes.

During the 16 years that C3 Consulting has been around, we’ve talked to thousands of international employees. Some of them work in Danish workplaces. Others have workplaces in countries all over the world but are employed in companies headquartered in Denmark and often have Danish managers.

In addition, we’ve gathered input from other researchers as well as those in our network.

Of course, there are also large variations depending on which companies the international employees work in, which managers they have and what cultural baggage they carry.

Still, there are some consistent patterns among the voices of international employees – from those who thrive well with the Danish feedback culture and those who are more critical of it.

You can see these patterns in the three sections below.

Why doesn’t my Danish manager care?

“My Danish manager gives me no feedback, and I think it’s so unconstructive. I have no idea how things are going.”

"When there are problems, Danes often say ‘Yes, we’ll figure it out, we can always come back to that, let’s just have a cup of coffee…’. Are they serious? It’s unambitious, it's unprofessional, it's uncommitted."

"I simply do not recognize the values that our company stands for in my manager's communication. If he wants 'high quality' and 'continuous development', why doesn’t he give me a slap on the wrist when I need to do better, and a pat on the back when I get it right? Because at least then I would know where I stand."

"Then my Danish manager says: ‘Well, just try your best and do what you think is right. You know, just get out there. Just try your best, and if you end up in the ditch, I'll help you up again.’ But this way of working is really pushing me outside of my comfort zone!"

"One of my Danish colleagues told me that it’s up to me to tell my manager if I need feedback, and then they would probably respond. But it can’t be right that it’s my responsibility to ask for it. That’s something that the manager must do!"

'Beyond dull'

"There's not much 'Woohoo' here. It’s more like, ‘What?!’ The weather is gray. The atmosphere is gray. And then we meet on Friday mornings over those mega-hard buns, where everyone speaks Danish."

"When we finish a big project, for example, I wish my manager would celebrate our success. It just doesn’t happen! We just move on or reflect on what we could have done better."

"It’s important that everyone is equal in Denmark – I understand that. But where are the high fives and the enthusiasm? It’s as if my Danish colleagues prefer to talk about mistakes. 100 percent success does not exist!"

Feedback from Danes: Direct and without resentment

"In the workplace, Danes usually go after the ball, not the person. They give positive and negative feedback, regardless of rank. Whether it's to a superior, a customer, or someone older than you or a specialist. It doesn’t matter."

"If you get negative feedback from your Danish manager, you discuss it. Then it's over, and then there’s no reason to hold a grudge. Danes usually put it behind them, and then we move on."

"Sometimes unpleasant truths can come out when Danes give feedback. I think it's because they’re often very direct. They don’t sugarcoat it. For me, it creates dynamism in the workplace. It appears to be positive but can seem negative too because of the Danes’ directness. You just have to get used to it."

5 tips for creating a culturally intelligent feedback culture

We’ve looked at how Danish feedback culture can be understood and experienced differently, depending on our cultural factors and other influences we may have.

We now conclude with 5 tips on how to create a culturally intelligent feedback culture in your company or team.

1. Be curious and explorative

The first step is to be curious about what feedback traditions your management colleagues and employees are used to:

  • What national, organizational and other differences are at play when it comes to feedback in your company or team?
  • When and how do managers typically provide feedback?
  • When and how do employees typically prefer to receive feedback?
  • And what values and assumptions are behind the different ways of giving and receiving feedback?

When you as a manager examine different feedback traditions in your company or team, be aware of how you might affect the situation yourself.

As a Dutch manager you might say: "I don’t experience a big difference in relation to my Indonesian counterpart; she’s actually just as direct in her feedback as I am."

And it may well be that she is. But it could also be that she is ONLY direct towards you because she adapts to the Dutch feedback style, and she has a much more indirect style in the Indonesian subsidiary.

2. Consider whether you as a manager need to adjust your own feedback style

Once you as a manager have investigated what feedback traditions your employees are used to, consider whether you need to adjust your own feedback style.

If you’re a Danish manager, for example, it might be the case that your Danish employees thrive on the 'no news is good news' model. But consider whether some of your employees from other cultural backgrounds might thrive and perform better with a 'more active' feedback style.

3. Remember to adapt your 'performance review' systems to your global subsidiaries

At C3 Consulting, we sometimes hear from people employed in local subsidiaries who tear their hair out over the 'performance review' systems that have been rolled out from the Danish headquarters. They have to fill out long forms where half of the questions simply do not make sense in the 'local reality' in e.g., Brazil, India or China.

No matter which 'performance review' system your company has chosen, the goal is certainly to develop and motivate your employees.

But if you operate across national borders, remember to adapt your systems so that they also have the desired effect in your global subsidiaries!

4. Negative feedback: Choose your words carefully – and do it one on one

As a manager, it requires a special talent to give negative feedback in a way that is perceived as respectful, fair and helpful to the employee. Even in teams that do not accommodate many cultural differences.

However, if you need to give negative feedback to your employees with cultural backgrounds other than your own, you need to tread extra carefully.

Erin Meyer, a researcher at the international business school INSEAD, has investigated how directly people typically give negative feedback in work cultures around the world.

At the very direct end of the spectrum, you find the Dutch and German work cultures. Here, it is typically acceptable to formulate negative feedback in a very straightforward and explicit way.

In Danish work culture, negative feedback is also quite direct in relation to the rest of the world – but as mentioned above, not quite as direct as the Danish communication style is otherwise.

At the most indirect end, you find many work cultures in East and Southeast Asia. Here, negative feedback is typically formulated in very diplomatic and subtle ways. And then criticism is often delivered along with positive feedback that can soften up the negative message.

If you’re in doubt about how directly you should deliver your negative feedback, start carefully. You typically risk more by being too direct (and perhaps seeming rude or disrespectful) than by being too indirect (the message might not get through – but then just step it up a bit next time!).

Use the same rule of thumb when choosing the framework for your feedback: In some work cultures, it’s okay to give negative feedback to an employee, even if there are others present – but if you have the slightest doubt whether it is appropriate, keep it one on one.

5. Be patient

Maybe you decide that you want to create a new feedback culture in your global organization.

If so, remember that cultural change such as this takes a lot of time and energy! Because the way we give each other feedback is based on deeply embedded assumptions and expectations that we may not even be aware of.

Here’s an example from a management training with a Danish trainer and Danish and Chinese participants:

The trainer puts the participants in pairs, and then explains that they must give each other feedback on the contribution they have made so far in the training.

One of the Chinese participants had the following feedback for the Danish manager he was teamed up with: "You’re simply too fat. You don’t exercise enough. You have to lose weight."

The Danish manager turned bright red and then fell about laughing. It was definitely not the type of feedback he was expecting!

Where to go from here

Can we help you develop a culturally intelligent feedback culture? Contact us for a chat.

Can we help your international employees to navigate Danish work culture? Read about our:

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