Happiness is a well-documented attribute of life in Denmark, which often extends to the workplace.
Corporate goals in the Scandinavian countries are just as ambitious as anywhere else in the world, but people choose to operate in a manner that reflects their Scandinavian roots and the infamous Law of Jante, which holds that the success of the team is more important than individual achievement.
Simply put, it’s all about teamwork, and without it, there is no culture.
Brian Chesky’s well-circulated Medium post about retaining core values articulates this philosophy well:
When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial. And if we have a company that is entrepreneurial in spirit, we will be able to take our next ‘(wo)man on the moon’ leap.
This sentiment is echoed in the “flat” Scandinavian management model, which focuses on building management out, not up, and working together.
Here are six key lessons for developing a flat management structure that fosters teamwork and productivity.
Small, autonomous teams produce the best work because these clusters give employees a sense of ownership, simultaneously demanding accountability from everyone involved. These teams rely on all contributing members and are able to quickly identify and acknowledge when any member needs help. A responsive teamwork model cuts back on standing meetings and cluttered email threads.
Within this team structure, everyone is equal and everyone is seen as a valued contributor to the evolution of the company’s core vision.
Author Gary Hamel put it succinctly: “The problem isn’t the occasional control freak; it’s the hierarchical structure that systematically disempowers lower-level employees.”
A flat management structure that empowers all employees, regardless of their level, fosters a motivated group of employees that are personally dedicated to the company’s mission.
Big projects are overrated. They are almost always less flexible than conceived, misinterpreted by others, and difficult to manage. To micromanage them is a guaranteed path to mistrust or contempt.
Instead of big sweeping assignments, focus on small, actionable tasks that align with a specific goal. This approach is a surefire way to solicit feedback or additional ideas–it’s all about iteration. Most importantly, this empowers employees to contribute to the process without fear of overstepping boundaries. Big projects waste too much time and too many resources. Save your energy and focus on the small stuff–one baby step at a time.
Make every win–new business, request for proposal, contract renewal–a cause for celebration. In a flat organization, good news travels fast and, typically, it’s the result of hard work from a lot of different people. It’s much easier to feel connected and valued when you’re consistently recognized for your effort–no matter how big or small.
This includes rewarding loyal employees. For instance, if you’re a former startup it’s imperative to reward the brave souls who joined early and who have offered support and positivity over the years.
Dedication cannot go unnoticed or underappreciated. The same can be said for organizations of any size, especially given the incentive these days to leapfrog ahead to more profitable adventures.
Every organization has big goals. In Denmark the difference is that there is shared responsibility for their achievement, and organizations are highly transparent about the status of these goals.
One of the greatest strengths of the Scandinavian model is a marked knowledge sharing which delivers clear advantages in an innovation-driven economy. For example, it is not unusual for a CEO to show everyone the cash flow and total MRR generated on a quarterly basis. Transparency creates a trusting environment that fosters true collaboration toward the company’s ultimate goals.
Jette Schramm-Nielsen of mm.dk explains that in Scandinavian countries “we don’t keep knowledge to ourselves–knowledge is power. In many other countries it is used as a resource. If you’ve discovered something, you keep it for yourself. We jump up on the table and tell it to everyone, because we trust each other–trust is the basis for sharing with others.”
Flat management encourages employees to be themselves at work. Wherever you land on the spectrum, and there is plenty of debate, there are some inherent benefits of creating an environment where employees are willing to openly try, fail, and learn from their mistakes.
In addition to giving employees more autonomy to make decisions and lead projects, flat companies take an interest in supporting their personal and professional pursuits. For instance, setting aside budget for attending conferences and events of all types and making an effort to support requests whenever possible.
At some companies, discussing personal travel plans in the workplace is taboo and only the foolish think they will be able to disappear for a week of uninterrupted bliss. At the very least, it’s far too easy to feel guilty about taking time off (and is there anything worse than “unlimited vacation?” Why not just promise “unlimited passive-aggressive rejections?”).
Under a well-run flat management model, all employees are encouraged to take their five weeks.
There is a genuine interest in where people go and what they do and all employees are encouraged to relax, unplug, and experience something new. When everyone is held accountable for contributions to the company there is no logical reason to limit or guilt-trip employees from taking time for themselves.
[i]–Ulrik Bo Larsen, CEO & founder of Falcon Social, is a self-taught software engineer who built enterprise social media platform Falcon Social from scratch and launched it successfully into to the global market. Prior to Falcon, Ulrik founded a digital agency and built the first Scandinavian social network from the ground up to acquisition.