Recognizing Across Cultures: Scandinavia

July 31, 2015 Darcy Jacobsen

Do you know the Law of Jante? Are you schooled on lingonberries and lagom? Do you know how recognition is unique in Scandinavia? In our ongoing series on Recognizing across Cultures, we will discuss the cultural and business norms on a region by region basis and use our experience to give you some recommendations for making recognition relevant and powerful for your employees.

Skansen Scandinavian culture



When it comes to culture, Scandinavia is unquestionably the world’s darling. Cooperative, egalitarian and practical—never showy, acquisitive or excessive—culture in the three Scandinavian countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark (as well as in their Nordic cousins Finland and Iceland) does seem to have achieved a perfect balance of personal comfort, economic strength and societal welfare.

This utopia appears to extend into the workplace as well—where you might find interns and senior leaders sitting at the same table hashing out ideas, and where IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad is famous for taking the bus and eating meatballs and lingonberry jam in his own canteen.

It might seem, at first glance, like such an equality- and values-driven culture would be very good at recognition and reward. Yet in one recent study of Danes, the biggest factor driving work unhappiness was found to be “a lack of praise and recognition.”

The truth is, a little more thoughtful analysis and observation is required to really understand the complex role of recognition in Scandinavian culture. Some may wonder what role reward and recognition could possibly play in a work culture that is already so intrinsically motivated? They may wonder how growing moves toward meritocracy can comfortably exist in a collectivist society? They may wonder how a culture so self-effacing is uniquely evolving to embrace appreciation and reward.

More than elsewhere in the world, Scandinavian leaders are cautious about simply importing what they perceive as self-aggrandizing “American-style” recognition programs. Such misunderstandings or mismatches can cause ill-considered recognition programs to misfire or fail in Nordic workplaces. But Scandinavian workers need recognition as much—if not more—than their colleagues in other regions. And when recognition and gratitude are conducted in a thoughtful and truly Scandinavian way, they have the potential to both protect the special cultures of Nordic business and help employees thrive.

In a recent MBA study of Nordic IT workers at Sesca, Sony Ericsson, and Conagri, researchers found that a majority of the respondents would appreciate feedback from their employers. They write: “individualized rewards and recognitions motivate an employee more than general ones. Receiving a personal feedback for a well done work from the manager or a colleague, maintains the employee in a positive thinking way about their job and make them give an extra mile to achieve the organization’s goals.” Personal feedback and recognition not only fit into the Nordic culture, but there is a strong need for them.

Norway example of Nordic culture

Nordic Culture

I’d like to begin by saying I’m aware that it is taking a great deal of liberty to generalize the cultures of five very unique and diverse Nordic countries! Sweden and Denmark are admittedly more densely populated, urban, tech-focused and entrepreneurial than their neighbors. Norway’s seafaring economy is more focused on oil and gas. Technically a Nordic country and not Scandinavian, Finland is known as more remote, independent and industrial. Likewise, Iceland has faced very unique economic challenges over the past decade. All five countries have their unique characteristics, norms and traditions.

However, there are enough cultural through-lines that we do feel comfortable talking about these countries as a region, with common characteristics that we have noticed impacting business and work life.

For example, all five countries here have seen heavy growth in the service and knowledge-based industries. All five appear in the top 15 countries listed by GDP per capita. They are also five of the top 8 countries listed at the top of the World Happiness Report.  All except Iceland also scored very high on a Gallup poll of irreligious countries—and Iceland wasn’t very far behind. Perhaps more importantly in business terms, all these countries share an economic and social model: free market economies heavily taxed to support broad-reaching welfare states focused on gender equality and quality of life. They are also among the best performing world economies in the last decade (again, excepting Iceland’s recent economic setbacks)

Here’s how Nordic culture breaks down on the framework we’ve been using for this series:Time team thinking framework

It might surprise you to learn that these five countries, with their extensive system of welfare, and disdain for attention-seeking, score among the highest in the world on Hofstede’s measure of Individualism. Despite a strongly collectivist social fabric, they highly value self-sufficiency, individual responsibility, and decision-making. But they are also extraordinarily democratic. At work, as Hofstede explains: ”the employer/employee relationship is a contract based on mutual advantage; hiring and promotion decisions are supposed to be based on merit only; management is the management of individuals.”

Also in Hofstede’s model, Nordic cultures score among the lowest on masculinity—placing a high value on relationships and quality of life over materialism and competition. Likewise, they score fairly low on uncertainty avoidance—which implies higher tolerance levels, less shame associated with failure, and a strong belief in common sense (yet a desire to have policies and regulations to guide behavior).

Nordic countries, like many individualistic cultures, are also moderately monochronic—emphasizing precision, rules, schedule keeping and contracts.

Here’s how the region as a whole looks to us through the Molinsky framework for cultural variables:Molinsky framework chart

 Directness is probably the trickiest variable to define for this region. Nordic countries are known for their matter-of-fact desire to “not waste words, [and] say how it is.” Compromise solutions based on complete honesty are considered to be important values in doing business here. At the same time, with low power-distances in most Scandinavian countries, managers are also known for their tendency to be non-directive in their instructions and to expect workers in this highly individual society to problem-solve for themselves to achieve set goals. (A low power distance culture means that they have relatively flat hierarchies and expect more direct input from all levels than in high power distance cultures.)

Nordic cultures are also famed for being somewhat reserved in their personal expression, maintaining distance between work and private lives. That accounts for a lower rating on enthusiasm. However, they are extraordinarily open, matter-of-fact, and informal as a whole—highly valuing transparency in business and personal transactions, which pulls the rating in the other direction for personal disclosure.

Despite high levels of autonomy and individualism, Scandinavians at work are consensus-driven team players. They are culturally conditioned not to self-promote—almost to a fault (see below on the Law of Jante), and rank among the lowest in the world for self-promotion. The flip side of this coin is their tendency toward flat organizations and lack of hierarchy, along with a very relaxed and casual business culture and low rankings on formality.

They may have a reputation for abstemiousness, minimalism, and lagom (see also below), but Hofstede also rates them moderately high in their scale of indulgence vs restraint. Says Hofstede: “a high score in Indulgence generally exhibits a willingness to realise their impulses and desires with regard to enjoying life and having fun. They possess a positive attitude and have a tendency towards optimism.”


Lagom and lingonberries – Recognition in Scandanavia and the Nordics
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Scandinavia – Workforce Snapshot   Copenhagen

After years of stable growth and prosperity that have been the envy of other world economies, Nordic countries are in the midst of several shifts with regard to their workforce climate. Instability in oil and gas prices is causing fluctuation in Norwegian labor markets—which had been experiencing some strain due to competition for skilled labor and an aging workforce. Conversely, a tech boom in Sweden is fueling the need for more skilled knowledge workers in that economy. Across the region younger workers are experiencing higher rates of unemployment, yet nonetheless entering the workforce in higher and higher numbers as baby boomers age out.

Development is critical to Scandinavian and Nordic employees—in particular millennials. In the FöretagsBarometern 2014 study from Universum, the top three most prized qualities the next generation of talent look for in their employers were found by the survey to be a creative and dynamic work environment coupled with leaders who supported individuals’ development and companies that offered a good platform for the their future career.

The highest social capital region of the world, the Nordic countries have high civic participation, high ethnic homogeneity, high social and economic equality, and low public corruption. The result, according to the World Happiness Report, is “a very high level of social trust not matched almost anywhere else in the world.” This social trust is the strong fabric that holds work cultures together, and businesses work to earn and protect it.

Engagement is holding its own in the Nordic region, but could be better. A recent study from Effectory International placed the Nordics on the whole as the most engaged region in Europe—with a combined engagement score of 27.3% (vs UK and Ireland, lowest at 17.4%). This is much higher than the European average of 23.9%, however, it still falls rather short of the Global engagement average of 30.0%.

Scandinavian Business Culture in a Nutshell

Scandinavian cultures are consensus cultures. Largely lacking in hierarchy, employees are expected to voice ideas and solve problems at all levels of the organization. A recent paper from the Hays Group on Gen Y and the World of Work in Sweden observed that organizations in this region are marked by:

  • Company culture that must apply all over the globe.
  • Flat company structure with a value on consensus
  • Employee empowerment from the top down
  • Emphasis on quality of life as a whole
  • A flexible workplace for women of childbearing age

shore line in Finland

According to that same report, in Sweden, millennials “largely steer away from using the term ‘leader’ when it comes to describing their ideal boss.” “Instead, like a lot of their peers in other Western countries, they want a coach or mentor most of all. In keeping with the traditional Swedish collectivist approach to business, they are also twice as likely to see their ideal boss as a peer compared to our global average.”

To understand Scandinavian business culture, you must first understand Janteloven, and its partner lagom, which pervade this region’s culture at all levels:

  • Janteloven: One of the traditional cultural beliefs that underlies Scandinavian culture is called Janteloven in Danish and Norwegian, (Icelandic: Jantelögin; Swedish: Jantelagen) or the Law of Jante. Codified in a 1933 novel, the law says that people shouldn’t see themselves as special or better than anyone else. In punishes blantant individuality, and puts a stigma on anything that makes someone stand out so that others might be jealous. The ten rules of Jante state:
  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
  11. * There is an eleventh warning, or punishing, law included in the book also: Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you?

This Jantelov culture drives the modest business approach of the Nordic countries, and is one of the reasons why the booming tech industry in Sweden doesn’t get quite the same spotlight that, say, the Berlin tech sector does—despite global juggernauts such as Skype and Spotify, and apps that top “best of” lists year after year. This strict, self-imposed modesty can cause frustration and disengagement, though. “In my country,” writes blogger Peter Sterlacci, “people sit and wait for managers and peers to recognize them. Some of us wait a lifetime for a well-deserved recognition that never comes our way. We don’t wave our hand and say ‘Hey, I’m good at this!’ Why? Because we’re not raised that way.”

  • Lagom: Scandinavian culture also has a less extreme concept than the Jantelov, called lagom (Sopvia in Finland) meaning “less is more” or “just the right amount.” Lagom is a principle Goldilocks would really admire, and many Scandanavians are beginning to feel the same. Less tyrannical than Jante, lagom is seen as a call for moderation. As Wikipedia explains: “In a single word, lagom is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. In recent times Sweden has developed greater tolerance for risk and failure as a result of severe recession in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, it is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes. […] It’s the idea that for everything there is the perfect amount: The perfect, and best, amount of food, space, laughter and sadness.”

For those who come from cultures such as the US, where people are sometimes encouraged to be strongly self-promotional and establish a ‘personal brand’, these philosophies can seem harsh. But even in Scandinavia the strictures are beginning to be defied. (Simply Google Jantelov and look at the images and you’ll see.) Though they are sometimes referred to as “Jante’s Shield,” and seen as protective of Nordic culture and values, younger Scandinavians are pushing back more and more against the Jantelov. Many say its influence is waning. As Swedish blogger Christina Andersson writes: “Nowadays, Swedes rather laugh at Jante and his rather depressing rules. We, too, want to think that we are special and good. However, Jante’s spirit still exists and forms us as citizens.” Most agree, however, that lagom is the surest way to carry that spirit forward as Jantelov slowly relaxes.

Why Recognition Matters in Scandinavia

Recognition is a human need, and even the presence of Jantelov does not minimize the human psychological desire of Scandinavians to feel accepted and appreciated for doing a good job. It is important to understand that—despite the collectivist strictures of Jante—Nordic workers are highly individualist, and therefore require feedback to feel they are achieving their goals, to feel flow, and to feel an important part of the whole. Says author Michael Booth in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, “The important part [of Jante] is the inclusiveness: we want to include you, but that is only possible if you are equal.” Recognition, when it has a broad reach and light footprint, is a perfect vehicle for that inclusiveness.

One of the most interesting aspects of recognition is that it carries no stigma of self-aggrandizement. Indeed, recognition is an opportunity for others to tell an employee that s/he is a necessary and productive member of the in-group, without that employee needing to step forward to demand needed feedback or positive attention. A well-functioning recognition system, therefore, will provide consistent, ongoing feedback to all members of a team, at a level that is regulated by the group itself, and therefore always lagom.

Recognition is particularly desirable for the region’s millennials. According to the Hays research cited earlier, “The majority of Gen Y Sweden define career success as achieving job satisfaction. When asked what brings the most job satisfaction, 60 per cent say feeling valued and appreciated.” It is unsurprising then, that the report goes on to recommend reward and recognition as a solution for retaining Gen Y in this region.

Here are a few more ways in which recognition aligns with Nordic culture:

  • Scandinavians pride themselves on their positivity. Because recognition is pure positive feedback (much more than it is a distinction or an honor), it is an important part of letting Nordic employees know they are on track in a positive manner, and this sort of positive reinforcement can minimize the need for negative or critical feedback. Here’s an example: Danish consultant Ramboll surveyed workers in the Norwegian postal service, Norway Post, and saw significant gains from increasing positivity and individual appreciation. “The results were explicit,” Ramboll reported, “the existing satisfaction and performance levels were untenably low.” When management shifted from a problem-focused approach to an appreciative style that involved the employees, “80% of the employees are now more satisfied, sickness absence has decreased and customers feel more welcome.”
  • Likewise, transparency is a very Nordic value. Social recognition, in particular, with its news feed to let people know what is happening and who is being recognized, increases transparency and helps employees to cultivate relationships and trust. It also shows them what values and behaviors matter to the company in a way that they can model without feeling singled out for critical feedback.
  • Politeness is another important contribution of recognition in this society. Good manners are very highly valued in Scandinavia and for its neighbors. A system of recognition provides a tool to remind people to be polite to one another, to stop, say thank you, and to reinforce that important part of the Nordic culture in the bustle of busy work lives.
  • And finally, recognition is an important way to help employees to practice and understand their societal and company values. Gen Y Nordics entering the workforce are pulling more and more away from Jantelov, and in fact, one-third of Swedes born in the 1980s have a foreign background, with one or both parents born in countries other than Sweden. This can cause a sort of cultural erosion that recognition is able to help countermand. Recognition rewards those who observe and live important cultural and business values.

How to Recognize Nordic Employees More Effectively

So how can you recognize effectively in Scandinavia and Nordic Countries? Here are a few pointers:

  • Emphasize more frequent, lower-value awards. Because these cultures are highly casual and low-key, stressing the benefit of many more modest awards of appreciation, vs. the ceremony and limelight of bigger annual awards is important. Big flashy awards can violate Jantelov, but small, iterative awards are simply a way for the group to let individuals know that they belong and are contributing positively. Because smaller, more frequent awards touch so many employees—rather than singling out a select few—they create a broad winners circle that fits much more comfortably into the cadence of the inclusive Scandinavian work culture.
  • Match the award value to the effort. Here is another place where lagom shines. Ensure that the value of the award is calibrated carefully to the effort exerted by the employee, so that they feel properly awarded.
  • Deemphasize excess reward ceremony. Avoid recognition solutions that involve large gatherings or ceremonies to present recognition. A low key approach here will be far more successful, and also encourage givers of recognition not to use excessive language or superlatives in their messages. Simple thanks and appreciative language to let the employee know their effort is appreciated by the team will strike a much more honest note.
  • Make recognition social. Because of the openness of Nordic culture, employees welcome the transparency that social recognition provides into the relationships and activities of a company. As an article from Danish Consulting Group Ramboll recently shared: “You have to develop a culture where everyone realises that they contribute to the bigger picture. Members of low-performing teams are often afraid to step out of their own group, because management measures their contribution to one particular team. […] Team leaders must motivate employees by clarifying their role in the company strategy, and encourage them to help other departments.” Social recognition can supply this sort of openness across even a highly distributed organization with global reach.
  • Ensure that recognition is anyone to anyone. Nordic work culture is characterized by flat structure and empowered employees. Peer to peer (and indeed, anyone-to-anyone) recognition is a way to put culture curation and feedback into the hands of every employee. Crowdsourcing recognition is a valuable tool for talent management, performance reviews, and cultural assessment in such a highly consensus-driven society.
  • Do not publicize the value of the award. Privacy is valued highly in this culture, and Nordic employees would cringe at having the value of awards made public— so never make the value of awards known to employees in Scandinavia. The ability to let employees hide awards from the social feed is also a good idea—particularly for older employees—though many employees will welcome the chance to see and add congratulations to recognition.
  • Remember the team. Because these are social and highly team-based cultures, where employees work for the common good, recognition messages should be encouraged for teams and not just individuals. Cooperation is highly valued and so it should be emphasized in award messages, which should stress contribution to the team and the company, and not heap excessive praise or distinction onto one individual (always respecting lagom).
  • Never, ever gamify recognition: One critical component in designing recognition for a Nordic culture is to never, ever use badges, leaderboards and the other trappings of pointsification—commonly referred to as gamification. Competition cheapens recognition—and even here in the US workers told us that recognition that benefited the givers with rank or prestige was considered less meaningful. Workers understand that pointsification is not motivating when recognizing others, and it does not motivate them to work harder. In Nordic cultures, recognizing others to reward yourself would be terminal.
  • Avoid manager-focused recognition. Some reward schemes work solely as a manager’s tool—with all recognition flowing through managers or senior leaders, and managers presenting years of long service awards and recognition almost exclusively. This would be a mistake in Nordic culture, where employees do not observe organizational hierarchy and prefer voices from all levels of the organization.
  • Build relationships via storytelling. There is a strong tradition of storytelling in Scandinavia—the region that originated World Storytelling Day. Relationships, as I mentioned earlier, are also critically important in this highly cooperative culture. Give workers an opportunity to use one to build the other by encouraging storytelling in recognition and service awards. Use solutions (such as Globoforce’s <a href=”” data-internal=”sta

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