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This Old Nordic Philosophy Makes for Happier Workers

Northern Europe’s Nordic region has long dominated the upper rankings of the World Happiness Report. This year, once again, three of its five primary countries—Finland, Denmark and Iceland—took the top three slots, with the other two—Sweden and Norway—following close behind in seventh and eighth. (The rest of the Nordic members, which include the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Åland, are not populous enough to be included in the rankings.)

Beyond cold weather, strong social safety nets, and long winters, there’s a specific cultural element that ties these countries together—one which may help explain why the happiest places on earth look at their careers through a different lens. It’s called “Janteloven” in Danish, or the “Law of Jante,” and it refers to ten rules that enforce a strong sense of humility, mutual respect, and empathy.

Originally developed by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose for his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, the fictional town of Jante’s ten commandments were intended to capture the Nordic region’s very real disapproval of rugged individuality.


Rule number one, which captures the essence of the subsequent nine, states: “You’re not to think you are anything special.” The rules are meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek—they aren’t literal laws—but the spirit of their message is a very real part of Nordic culture.   

“It has these two sides to the commandments that are so rooted in how we’re brought up,” says Camilla Miehs, group chief people officer for Denmark-based logistics firm Leman. “The Law of Jante basically says don’t believe you’re better than anyone else; keep your head down and mind your own business, and just focus on doing good—and everyone is equal and should be treated equally.”

Miehs adds that it’s hard to understand why Nordic countries have such a different relationship with their work without understanding Janteloven. She adds that other distinctions—like more robust social safety nets, flatter workplace structures, and more generous leave policies—are merely symptoms of this cultural cornerstone.

“We generally have a very humble approach to what you’re supposed to do and be, and that plays a huge part in who we are,” Miehs explained during the TechBBQ conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.


When every member of society is discouraged from viewing themselves as being any better, smarter, or more important than others, certain workplace norms emerge. For example, Miehs says organizational hierarchies aren’t taken very seriously in the Nordics compared to other parts of the world. As a result, she says there is less of a divide between employees and upper management.

“There is an ingrained expectation that you can go to your managers and say, ‘I disagree’ or ‘I can’t deliver that,’ or ‘I have a better plan,’ and no one would question that. It’s normal, and that’s how we drive better [results],” says Miehs. “If you draw it on paper, the company looks more or less the same, but the cultural feeling is that the organizational structures in Scandinavia are always flatter.”


For many professionals, their status at work largely defines their status in society. In Nordic countries, however, most necessities of life are guaranteed by the state, and thanks to Jantelovenprofessional accomplishments aren’t considered the primary measure of personal importance.

“If status isn’t being a hot shot king of the world, then maybe status is in something else; maybe it’s having more of a work-life balance, maybe it’s being happy because you’re not being worn down to your ankles [by overworking], maybe it’s about a great vacation you had or are looking forward to,” suggests Christian Bach, the Danish-born co-founder and CSO of development platform Netlify. 


Bach, who moved from Copenhagen to San Francisco eight years ago, says this approach can make for happier employees, but isn’t necessarily an asset for Nordic entrepreneurs like himself.

“There’s not that drive in the same way to win at all costs, and I think that’s both good and bad as an entrepreneur; the drive you see in North America is a bit different,” he says. “I remember fundraising in the U.S., I felt I was out there selling a dream, and I was hammering at it, and they came back [with] ‘it’s amazing, you Danes are so humble,’ and it’s like ‘really?’ because I didn’t think that came across as very humble.”

While Janteloven encourages people to detach their own self-worth from their careers, that philosophy can also discourage them from realizing their full professional potential, warns Anders Mayntzhusen, the CEO of Copenhagen-based AI communication platform Humani.

“I think Janteloven is more about jealousy,” he says. “It basically hinders people in growing within businesses, because they’re so [worried] about their surroundings and what other people think about them, so the Janteloven is basically holding them back.”


Mayntzhusen explains that in practice Janteloven can serve to discourage professional ambition, which is why he recommends both cultures strive for a better balance between the highly individualistic American approach, and the more collective Scandinavian outlook.

While Bach of Netlify appreciates the gung-ho American work culture, he believes workplaces in his adoptive home could benefit from some of those Nordic features, like the flatter hierarchies, more directness, humility, work-life balance, and equality preached by Janteloven.

“Everyone works better if they are aligned strategically with not just their immediate colleagues, not just their reports, but across the organization and with management and leadership,” he says. “I think by feeling more connected, that alignment is much easier to obtain—I think it creates happier workers, and at the end of the day, it creates better results.”

Source : Fast Company

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