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PhD student Anna Maria Kubovcikova's (MSc, '12) research is focused around self-initiated expatriates, so we asked her about what happens when Danes go to work abroad.

Q: Why are self-initiated expatriates interesting?

A: One of the main reason companies use self-initiated expatriates is that they are cheaper than classical organizational expatriates. Sending an employee from a parent company abroad is very expensive, especially if he/she moves with the whole family. The company usually pays for the re-allocation, pre-departure training and many times higher salary to reimburse the employee for the complicated and stressful process. This reality actually fueled research on management of expatriates. It is very costly to send an employee abroad to complete an assignment (e.g. help to set up a subsidiary) and then watch him/her returning prematurely back home or staying but failing to accomplish the task. 

Self-initiated expatriates see employment abroad as a challenge, opportunity to develop their skills and further their career. Therefore they are open to learn from the cross-cultural experience. The positive motivation for stay abroad was also found to be connected with better performance. On the other side, their independence and high mobility poses different set of challenges for the management. Therefore I think it is important to study carefully this specific group of employees and create management practices specifically targeted to increase their retention. There has been so far major focus on studying the individual characteristics of the expatriates, which also makes sense because the employers are interested in hiring the “right” person for the position. I think that is just half of the story. Expatriation is a multi-level phenomenon. The expatriates are embedded in cultural context and social networks that influence their behavior and decisions.

Q: What are the biggest challenges/advantages Danes meet when working abroad?

A: Well, that is actually quite interesting, because the biggest advantage of a Danish expatriate can turn to the biggest disadvantage. Danes think of themselves and are often praised for being very open-minded and tolerant. They score low on the anti-immigration attitudes in comparison to other European countries.[1] They moreover have excellent language capabilities, especially in English and German. So in principal they should make great expatriates. 

Read: Export talent: how to navigate your experience abroad

There is a little problem however. Danish management culture is described as empowering and egalitarian, built on mutual trust between the employer and employee. It is very common that a Danish superior would give an assignment with a deadline (perhaps even without deadline) to an employee without exact directions on how to get there and trust that he/she will figure it out without much supervision within reasonable time. Furthermore he will trust that if the employee encounters an obstacle that is outside of his capability to solve, he will report back immediately with the problem, ask for assistance and consultation, as the supervisor is obviously opened to feedback. This is not so obvious to everybody else and might cause much stress and pressure on an employee of different cultural background.

Danish management style is perceived in a positive light, because encouragement of participation in decision-making on all levels and freedom to express one’s opinion induces engagement, which is of course very desirable. But freedom and trust comes in hand with responsibility that can be overwhelming for employees who are used to getting direct orders. So when a Danish management style initially fails to produce same results as in Denmark, they can quickly change from egalitarian bosses to bossy monarchs.


At Institut for Marketing of Organisation

“My PhD project is focused around the self-initiated expatriates that are individuals who move abroad in pursuit of employment without the support of a parental organization”

Q: Are Danes equipped from the Danish educational system to achieve in a more competitive work culture?

A: From my own experience Danish education encourages critical thinking and application of theoretical knowledge, which is of course very important. In that sense Danes are very well prepared for their careers and competition abroad. However culturally, Danes have an idea of work-family balance that is different from other countries. Long work hours in themselves, even apart from the results achieved, are valued in countries like USA. Also the boundaries between work and personal life are blurred, where colleagues belong to your social circle. So Danish students are perhaps prepared in terms of skills but might be surprised by the working hours, office culture and type of supervision abroad.

Q: Which countries/cultures do Danes adapt to easily? Which are more difficult?
A: According to the well-known cultural typologies Danes belong to the same cluster as the other Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden) and are close the Germanic cluster (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) rather than the Anglo-American cluster[2]. Also in terms of communication they belong to the linear-active group that prefers discussion based on facts not heated up with too much emotion. That has been confirmed not just through quantitative research (based on surveys) but also through ethnographic research and interviews. 

Read: Berlin - The city of opportunities?

This is a quote from a British manager about a Danish co-worker: “The Danish tend to be less emotional. They are very well organized and rational. If it is an English person and you really want to pursue something - if it is a really important issue you tend to be really emotional about it and really argue and fight for it. Danes are not like that. If they really want something they will not get passionate about it, but they would go for even more rational arguments. In that respect I guess they are a little like the Germans.” It is also funny to see that the word hygge made it to the text-book on cross-cultural communication. Despite the fact that Danes are not hesitant to disagree with each other, they are skillful at negating someone’s opinion without negating the person who expressed it. They disagree and explain why based on facts, but never shout at each other or get in any way emotional, because that would certainly not be very hyggeligt! During Danish negotiation there will be debate, then apparent agreement, then compromise and cake and bad coffee in large quantities with it. Danish patience would be definitely tested in Southern Europe and Latin America, where they would come across the eloquent vivacious speakers, disrupting everybody in mid-sentence, shouting to make their point clear, doing three and more things at a time during a business meeting that started minimum half-hour late. On the up-side the coffee will be much better. 

Humor and willingness to confront overtly can help solve the difficult communication in these countries. However humor is not advisable in Asia, especially not Danish humor that would be most likely perceived as obnoxious and rude. Danes may make couple of judgment errors as well, viewing the silence of their Asian colleagues as ignorance, nod and nervous smile as sinn of understanding or agreement and loyalty to friends and family as corruption. But I am not saying anything new, the cultural stereotypes and jokes do exist for a reason. 

Read: Do it the Danish way

Cultural typologies might be a useful guiding tool when you are deciding which market to enter with the least effort or when you are designing a marketing strategy that should appeal to most people in the country. However mindless application of a static typology (that can be outdated-culture changes too) is not advisable in daily interactions with people of different gender, age, religion and political ideology. Culture is just one of the vectors or faultlines that divides people. Geographical distance can be misleading. You can sit in a plane for 14 hours and find your business trip to Hong Kong less traumatizing than expected because of the cosmopolitan culture. You can cross the bridge to Sweden and find out that as an expatriate you will still deal with a loss of network and loss of familiarity in your environment. Unexpected change that catches you off guard can be worse than expected change that you are prepared for. That is visible in the case of repatriation; when coming back home is usually not as idealistic as expatriates imagine. Therefore overall, assumptions are dangerous. In a nutshell don’t assume, rather assess the situation. 

[1] According to the results from European Social Survey
[2] This is based on meta-analysis of more than one cultural typology including the well-known Hofstede typology. For details you can see Ronen and Shenkar, Clustering Countries on Attitudinal Dimensions: A Review and Synthesis.

Written by Julie Løndahl Petersen, julielp@au.dk