Category Archives: Leadership

Leadership is an insanely important discipline. Here you’ll find the thought, tools and tricks of the trade of great leaders.

5 reasons why Danish workers are the happiest in the world

You will often see Denmark listed as one of the “happiest countries on the planet.” Interestingly Danes are not only happy at home, they’re also happy at work and according to most studies of worker satisfaction among nations, the happiest employees in the world are in Denmark.

Here’s just one data point: Gallup found that 18% of American workers are actively disengaged, meaning they are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.” The same number for Danish workers is only 10%.

But why are Danish workers so much happier than their counterparts around the world? Here are five fundamental differences that explain what’s going on.

1: REASONABLE WORKING HOURS

I once talked to an American who had gotten a job as a manager at a Danish company. Wanting to prove his worth, he did what he had always done and put in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager invited him to a meeting. He was fully expecting to be praised for his hard work, but instead he was asked “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

Some non-Danes wonder if Danes ever work. Not only do Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, but they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,780 hours and the average South Korean 2,024 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,408, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics. Danes also have more leisure hours than any other OECD workers and the link between sufficient leisure and happiness is well established in the research.

The difference to other countries is stark. Many companies around the world celebrate overwork as a sign of commitment. “You have to put in the hours” is the message in the mistaken belief that the more hours you work, the more work you get done. We call this “The Cult of Overwork.” Danish companies, on the other hand, recognize that employees also have a life outside of work and that working 80 hours a week is bad for both employees and the bottom line.

2: LOW POWER DISTANCE

In many countries, if your boss gives you an order, you pretty much do what you’re told. In a Danish workplace, extremely few direct orders are ever given and employees are more likely to view them as suggestions.

Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede has quantified the culture in more than 100 countries on several parameters, one of which is “power distance.” A high power distance means that bosses are undisputed kings whose every word is law. Danish workplaces–with a score of 18-have the lowest power distance in the world. Just for comparison,  Belgium has a power distance of 65, China clocks in at 80 and Malaysia holds the world record at 100.

By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees. This means that Danish employees experience more autonomy and are more empowered at work. Here’s just one example: By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees, who are elected to the board by their peers and serve on an equal footing and with same voting powers as all other board members.

3: GENEROUS UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

In Denmark, losing your job is not the end of the world. In fact, unemployment insurance seems too good to be true, giving workers up to 90% of their original salary for two years. In the U.S., for instance, losing your job can easily lead to financial disaster and loss of health insurance. This leads to job lock i.e. staying in a job you hate because you can’t afford to leave.

Simply put: If you’re a Dane and you don’t like your job, you can quit that job without risking serious financial problems, forcing companies to treat their employees well or risk losing them.

4: CONSTANT TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT

Since the mid-1800s, Denmark has focused on life-long education of its workers. This policy continues to this day, with an extremely elaborate set of government, union, and corporate policies that allow almost any employee who so desires to attend paid training and pick up new skills. It’s called an “active labor market policy,” and Denmark spends more on these types of programs than any other country in the OECD.

This lets Danish workers constantly grow and develop and helps them stay relevant (not to mention stay employed) even in a changing work environment. It also makes their jobs richer and more interesting.

5: A FOCUS ON HAPPINESS

Here’s a word that exists only in the Scandinavian languages: Arbejdsglæde. Arbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde is “happiness at work.” This word is not in common use in any other language on the planet.

Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal.

For instance, where we Scandinavians have arbejdsglæde, the Japanese instead have karoshi, which means “Death from overwork.” And this is no coincidence; there is a word for it in Danish because Danish workplaces have a long-standing tradition of wanting to make their employees happy. To most Danes, a job isn’t just a way to get paid; we fully expect to enjoy ourselves at work.

In other countries, the attitude towards work is often very different. A few years ago I gave a speech in Chicago, and an audience member told me that “Of course I hate my job, that’s why they pay me to do it!” Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal. Similarly, many workplaces around the world do little or nothing to create happiness among employees, sticking to the philosophy that “If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re not working hard enough.”

THE UPSHOT

I’m not trying to paint Danish companies as utopias for workers and their international counterparts as tyrannical hellholes. There are bad Danish workplaces and stellar non-Danish ones–Zappos and Google are two that I’ve personally visited and studied.

But studies have uncovered a number of systemic and cultural differences between Denmark and the rest of the world that serve to explain why Danish workers are on average so much happier.

This goes far beyond happiness. We know from any number of studies that happy workers are more productive and innovative and that consequently, happy companies have happier customers and make more money. This may help explain why Danish workers are among the most productive in the OECD and why the Danish economy continues to do so well.

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10 steps to build a strategy for happiness

If you want to build a happy workplace, you have to take happiness seriously – paradoxical as that may sound. You must make sure to include happiness in every aspect of the company.

In this presentation from our latest Conference on Happiness At Work, I share 10 ways that some of the world’s best and most successful workplaces have built happiness into their DNA by making it one of their top strategic priorities, including things like:

  • Hire for happiness
  • Appoint a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer)
  • Plan for happiness
  • Measure and promote happiness – not satisfaction
  • Promote and train managers for happiness

Our next  conference is in May in Copenhagen. See the full program and get your tickets here.

We just announced our 10th conference on happiness at work – Early bird rate available until February 28

We are incredibly proud to announce the program for our 10th conference on happiness at work – this jubilee edition is bigger and better than ever.

We have 15 amazing speakers from 12 countries to explain the theory and practice of happiness at work.

Check out the program and get your tickets here – early bird tickets are available until February 28.

Worst. Comment. Ever :)

One of my most popular articles is this one on Why “The Customer is Always Right” is Wrong.

I have gotten so many supportive comments from retail employees who have been treated badly by rude customers and received no support from their managers, who hide behind this tired maxim.

Of course not everyone agrees. Here’s a comment I got a few days ago:

BS!!! BOTTOM LINE IS THAT THE CUSTOMER
HAS THE MONEY.
THATS THE GOLDEN RULE…
HE WHO HAS THE GOLD MAKES THE RULE!!!

That’s hilarious :) It’s also the perfect expression of the entitled attitude that the worst customers use to justify their horrible behavior. Having money gives you NO license to treat others badly.

This Danish CEO did something AWESOME for his staff at Christmas

Søren Steffensen, The CEO of Danish supermarket chain Irma, has a simple philosophy: The employees come first.

He also knows that Christmas is the busiest time of year for his people, so he is currently on a tour where he and his top leaders visit all 80 stores to meet the staff, drum up some energy and personally hand out Christmas presents to their people.

What a great thing for a top executive to take time to do, to show people that they’re valued.

The above pic is from one of the Copenhagen stores, where he found the actual, genuine, real Santa Claus behind the register :)

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5 things to know before you try to motivate your employees with money

Do financial rewards motivate employees to work better? I really don’t think so.

Companies that use rewards and bonuses to make employees happier and more motivated are largely wasting their money. The promise of a bonus has never really done anything for me personally, and the research in motivation is very clear: Rewarding people for better performance tends to reduce performance. See the book “Payoff” by Dan Ariely for some great real-life studies.

But maybe I’m wrong – it wouldn’t exactly be the first time :)

So I recently asked this question on twitter and LinkedIn:

Have you ever received a bonus or other monetary reward at work, that was given in a way that made you happier at work and/or more motivated? If so, what about the reward was it that worked for you?

The replies clearly show that we can’t completely dismiss the use of monetary rewards and bonuses at work – and they also reveal when they actually make people happier and more motivated.

Here are 5 lessons from the replies I got.

1: Financial rewards work better when they are surprising

One factor that showed up in may comments was that surprising rewards work much better than expected ones. This is a crucial finding because many companies promise certain rewards when employees achieve certain goals, making the rewards expected and reducing their effectiveness.

Here are some examples:

“My husband recently received an unexpected bonus, for exceptional service. It was not asked for, not expected but welcomed with great warmth and happiness.”

“I have this clear recollection of my former manager handing me a gift certificate for a lunch. Compared to my other bonuses and incentives this was nothing – in a monetary perspective and yet it made a huge impression the reason being that it was unexpected. He just wanted to appreciate my work.”

“Yes I have – the fact that it came out of the blue and was accompanied with a handwritten card from the bosses meant all the difference in the world.”

“One time. It came as a complete surprise (as opposed to those ‘entitled’ bonuses) + some nice personal words to go with the $$$.”

“It came as a surprise, so was a reward rather than incentive, and with a genuine, and face to face, conversation about why it was being given.”

2: Financial rewards work better when they’re clearly tied to recognition

People also found rewards motivating when they were given as recognition for good and meaningful work.

“Yes, when it was clearly linked to the result we as a team had made. Everybody got paid from the hard work and because we succeeded. Being part of a result and seeing that in your wallet – I believed made us happier.”

“I was fortunate to work for an executive who understood the value of appreciation. The company didn’t have a bonus system as such (at least not for my level) – yet, from time to time, when I had done a particularly good job – he would come to my office, give me feedback on the extra value of this effort, an gave me 3 bottle of good red wine, paid for a pair of expensive sunglasses I was looking at, … smaller tings like that.

He frequently gave med feedback on what I have done – but sometimes, it was just a tad more than that – and it made me feel good and truly appreciated … and really wanting to do what it takes to experience that again.

Oh – by the way – the executive was not my immediate manager, but the managers manager.”

3: Financial rewards work better when they are given as a good experience

Many people mentioned that they’d gotten rewards that were given as a good experience rather than as a monetary amount.

“At one of my workplaces the bonus system allowed me to study an MBA. The reward system was built on pretty simple financial KPIs and depending on the result my employer would pay for the following year’s tuition….that affected my motivation positively.”

“Yes – anything you can share with your family is great! They also ‘suffer’ from us working hard :-)”

“Good question Alexander ! I worked during 5 years for a Hotel group chain in the world, with work contracts of limited duration for each mission. One day, between two contracts, my manager offered me (to reduce my waiting of my working visa for Kenya and to thank me), a free Flight where I wanted in the world. 10 days after, i left with my best friend for Mauritius island !! Beautiful reward of my work : to offer me a moment to rest !!!”

“Looking back I am more happy with a dinner my great boss gave me many years ago than a loyalty bonus of substantial value from an ahole years later.”

“Does “go on vacation and bring me the receipts – you look like you need it” count? If so, yes – and what worked was the fact that this particular boss noticed that I was run down and ragged and did, in fact, sorely need a vacation, and that I was going to find an excuse not to go unless she did something about that, too. Also, I couldn’t really afford a trip at the time, so the money did actually matter, too.”

4: Financial rewards work better when people need money

This one ain’t exactly a mystery – if employees need money, giving them money makes them happy.

“A friend of mine once told my managers manager that I was so tired (I was working 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week for 3 months) I had fallen asleep in the cinema watching the latest 007 movie (so, not something by krzysztof kieslowski). My managers manager said that he’d reimburse my ticket. I thought nothing of it, but got a note from him saying that there’s money for a dinner also, and then a 2.500 USD extraordinary payout. It made a huge difference and impact, I felt really appreciated (because money was a factor in my life back then). Today, it wouldn’t make any big changes.”

“Once, when I was young and working at my first real job. When Christmas arrived I got a box full of Christmas related food and snacks. This was also my first time living on my own – I expected nothing and was very happy to get food and snacks that I could not afford on my own back then.”

5: But many say rewards don’t work for them

I got so many replies from people who said that they had never received a financial reward in a way that worked for them. In some cases, they even made things worse. Here are some of the replies:

“I have also tried being incentivized where it felt more like a stressful factor than an incentive. I think – for me at least – the task has to hold meaning and the reward has to be at a reasonable level to balance out the extra effort.”

“Never. I was always rewarded with recognition, a new problem to solve and more responsibility. The pay was always more than I wanted to spend, and I never thought about it”

“Nope. Did once get one so small the entire team thought of giving it back. As a reward for our efforts it was actually a demotivating insult. No bonus is better than a belittling bonus IMO.”

“Yes, momentarily. Because the amount was substantial. Another time, yes, because I didn’t expect it. Both times, the feeling lasted about a week….. then it was ‘same old, same old’🤨”

“Honestly, no, I don’t think I have. I’ve valued the money, and sometimes felt trapped in my role and retained by the expectation of receiving it, but not felt motivated by it. Achievement, thank yous, helping my team, making things better and purpose all motivate me more.”

“Only ever earned sales commission as a bonus, and never has it had any effect on my motivation or behaviour.”

“In the past I’ve received a surprise bonus at the end of a big project and it was a moment of happiness and motivation. “Hey, these people appreciate the work we did!” But when the next three projects finished up and no such bonus appeared, it was demoralizing in that the Board appeared to have lost interest or appreciation for the years of work that went into the projects.”

The upshot

Monetary rewards are one tool that companies can use to motivate employees and keep them happy – it’s just that for some companies it’s the only tool they use reliably and that is doomed to fail.

If your employees need money, giving them money will make them happier. If they don’t, you might find it  much more effective to:

  1. Make the reward a surprise
  2. Give an experience instead of money
  3. Give the reward as recognition for good work

And note that these three can easily be combined, making rewards that much more effective.

And ESPECIALLY note that if when companies give “bad” rewards they can actually backfire and make employees less motivated. How dumb is that?

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