How Danish Culture Affects Change Management

02 December 2020

Aligning your change mangement work with the culture in which it is practiced is essential to obtain success.

author picture Article written by Anna Balk-Møller

Danes are odd. Objectively speaking – we are weird. Danish culture has the interesting characteristic of being at extreme ends of many measurable, cultural dimensions. And of course, this also impacts how we do change management. But in what way?

At a conference hosted by Prosci this year, the Expert panel – consisting of change management specialist from around the globe – was asked questions on how different cultures impact our change management work. Great observations were aired out in this forum. And it was clear, that even though we do the same things – we adapt differently depending on the culture we operate in.

Understanding our (cultural) profile diminishes our unconscious biases. We cannot NOT have biases. But when they become conscious, we can adapt specific tactics to put into different parts of our change management work. 

An example is the way we appeal to decision makers to prioritise change management in the first place. According to Prosci’s best practise research findings, there are five major reasons for why change management is important: 

  1. Benefit realisation and financial outcome (will we actually achieve what we hope for?)
  2. Project impact and risk management (keeping budget and time)
  3. Results of past projects (changing an unfortunate streak of not succeeding)
  4. Employee reactions and resistance (unavoidable, but costly if not managed)
  5. Business performance improvement (minimising the productivity dip that is inherent in change)

In Denmark, especially #2 Project impact and risk management are recognised as a solid ‘why’. From a cultural perspective, this is aligned with a Danish focus on keeping deadlines. Even though people across cultures all rely on trust as a foundation for everything, what generates trust has big cultural variations. And for Danes being timely is the primary trust generator. Therefore, tapping into the correlation between change management and keeping project timelines, budgets and objectives is probably one of our most commonly used reason for ‘why’.

Danish traits that supports change management

When Danish decision makers then include change management in their transformation projects, it is often done with a relatively good level of maturity. Although Danish organisations are diverse in how maturely they apply change management, we do fairly well in general. One of the reasons could be explained by a significant cultural trait. A trait that is at the very core of the concept of change – uncertainty avoidance.

Resistance to change is a natural human reaction. No one likes to leave ‘the known’ [pick any of the following: ways of working, surroundings, IT systems, etc.]. However, Danes are significantly more uncomfortable with change than most other people around the globe. We actually hold the 4th highest score on Uncertainty Avoidance (5,22 on a scale from 1-7 according to the Globe Study). Being that uncomfortable with uncertainty is a solid motivation for taming the chaos that inevitably follow change. And thus, Danish organisations might be more willing to invest in managing change. 

When it comes to actually getting our hands dirty in executing change management, the knowledge of cultural traits also helps us prioritise our efforts. As an example, Danes have relatively high emotional expressiveness as well as a moderate assertiveness. These parameters are off course individual, but as a general we still have less tendency to prioritise face saving, we are open, outspoken, and direct. Knowing this makes resistance management easier in Denmark. We do not usually have to make special plans to ensure that we get honest feedback. Most are quite comfortable [sometimes annoyingly comfortable] openly speaking their minds and challenging directions.

If I – oblivious to culture – applied the same resistance management procedure that succeeded in Denmark in another context, it is likely that I would massively f*** up.

Danish traits that traps change management

Danish preferences of course also challenge our change management efforts. Or if not directly challenge, then at least require us to make conscious efforts to supplement tactics that would be stronger in other contexts.

To exemplify, the Danish culture is highly egalitarian. We hold yet another record of having the all-time lowest score on power distance. This means that most Danish organisations have very flat organisational structures and we generally place very little importance on authority (and any trinkets that symbolise that). We want and expect to meet our superiors at eye level.

The implication for change management is that one of the most effective tools – Sponsorship – is not as effective in Denmark. For the past 20 years, ‘active and visible sponsorship’ have turned up as the number one reason for success according to Prosci’s best practice findings. It is off course still important to engage sponsors in Denmark, but we need to be aware of how we do it.

So, just making a video with the company CEO advocating the change is not worth the effort. Here, he/she must commit to meeting the employees in person. And even that is not enough – the nearest manager will have to take on some of the sponsorship responsibilities too. Because the message of the CEO alone does not necessarily lead to the same strong results in Denmark as it might do in other cultures.

It is great to have solid best practice change management approaches to lean on and be guided by. But please fellow change managers – make the extra effort to understand the cultural drivers that inevitably influence your work. Is will make us far better at our mission, when we actually understand why our tactics work or fail. 

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