The Law of Jante at work in Scandinavia
July 9, 2020
The difference between Scandinavian and American work culture
In creative industries, employees expect more from their employers than just a pay check. Around the world, there are companies leading the way when it comes to employee happiness, equality, work/life balance, and ultimately company culture.
A lot of Ukrainian IT companies frequently speak about their roots from the United States and how they try to attract new employees by the benefits of working there. However, most US companies lag behind in many areas compared to the socialist sweet dream of Scandinavian companies.
There is a tangible difference in the work atmosphere of Scandinavian companies compared to the US ones, which goes beyond differences in work benefits.
Working for Scandinavian companies whilst being based in Ukraine has put me in a unique position to understand the elements of people's operations and culture that we could learn from in Ukraine.
My view is based on my past experience working at IT companies with an American style of management, which was in no way negative, but to my mind leaves a lot of room for improvement. I believe that the Scandinavians’ advanced work culture is probably one of the factors that explain the region's top ranking in world happiness reports (2019 World Happiness Report).
Philosophy of the Law of Jante
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.
There is substantial trust between individuals in Scandinavian workplaces and a true sense of equality. For instance, you can see the CEO of a company cleaning spilled coffee so that the cleaner doesn't have to. For me, this is an indication of a high level of mutual respect between colleagues regardless of their position in the company.
This can be explained by Janteloven or the Law of Jante, a commonly known term in the Scandinavian countries, which says that the success of the team is more important than an individual achievement. The term was originally created by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel “En flyktning krysser sitt spor”. In this novel, Sandemose created ten rules that defined Janteloven, which can be summed up to a principle of equality when individuals don’t think of themselves as being any better than the rest of the community. The Janteloven mentality is not about making yourself any lesser, instead it should encourage you to see other people’s value.
This might seem silly for those who have been taught the value of the individual’s efforts in realizing their dream, but I feel that there are benefits to be gained by adopting the Janteloven perspective. When you work in that way it informs a level of trust, which is one of the great things of working in a company with the Scandinavian style of management. People trust you in doing your job well and you can be sure that when you receive feedback it is genuine.
Instead of having to earn trust, employees are trusted from the very beginning by their superiors, which makes the atmosphere more relaxed and open. This is a crucial aspect of improving the work environment, as it can prevent misunderstandings and minimize unnecessary office politics.
I enjoy the Janteloven mentality when “you say what you mean, and you mean what you say” and believe that this could benefit all companies. It helps to keep communication clear and minimize the amount of politicking that happens — which is an area where employees lose a lot of energy and focus.
The less politics in the workplace the better. It can be especially cumbersome for small companies, where it is essential to make the best out of the resources that are at their disposal. To get the most out of the employees, it is important to create an environment where people will feel free to express themselves. And this is one of the ways to achieve that.
Balancing work and personal life
Surveys have suggested that people around the globe are having more and more difficulties balancing work and personal life. This is an increasing problem and many companies have acknowledged that there is a need for further action. Some companies implement “the right to disconnect” in non-working time to reduce stress and help people balance work and personal life.
Meanwhile, most workers in Ukrainian IT companies are still expected to have email alerts turned on 24/7, which means that you are technically always at work. This leads to the employees being less focused. There isn’t any legislation in Scandinavia that dictates how connected people should be in their free time, but the consensus is that you leave work when you leave the office.
If people are really focused while they are at work and put in time effectively then when they go home, they can focus on their personal life: family, hobbies, etc. This does not mean that people don’t put in overtime, but it is kept within reason.
Short-term effectiveness vs long-run growth
There is no doubt that a lot of Ukrainian IT companies can immensely benefit from Scandinavian work culture. There is an urgency for growth in the tech industry and one of the main problems that businesses face is how to make that growth sustainable.
All this being said, it doesn’t mean that the American work ethic isn’t effective, however, I want to admit that the cons might outweigh the pros of American work culture, at least in the long run.
Employee retention becomes an issue that can make it harder to sustain growth. Therefore, the American system might be better in the short-term, but the Scandinavian system is probably better for long-term growth. Adapting Janteloven to Ukrainian reality means boosting morale by acknowledging others’ work effort, communicating clearly on a peer-level, and taking everyone’s needs into account.