Could HR learn from the Law of Jante?


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What could UK employers learn from this fictional set of laws reflecting traditional aspects of Scandinavian behaviour and society?

Sweden is famous for many cultural exports: depressing crime dramas, flatpack furniture and generous shared parental leave legislation to name just a few. Stockholm, home of Swedish success stories Spotify and Skype, boasts more unicorns (tech companies valued at more than $1 billion) per capita than anywhere outside Silicon Valley. The most common profession among Stockholm residents is ‘programmer’.

But what is behind this disproportionate level of success? How can a country with a population of around 10 million compete on the global stage in such an impressive way? There are a few compelling reasons, ranging from government policy that provided every Swede with a computer, to the idea that long cold Winters are conducive to creativity and storytelling.

One argument is particularly relevant to those trying to run effective teams: the notion of the ‘Swedish mindset’, specifically a concept known as the Law of Jante or ‘Jantelagen’.

Jantelagen was created by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s. It’s a fictional set of laws reflecting traditional aspects of Scandinavian behaviour and society, which emphasise conformity over individualism and promote modesty and teamwork at the expense of self-promotion. Example laws include 'you’re not to think you are anything special' and 'you’re not to think you are more important than we are'.

The concept divides opinion. Proponents of Jante argue that such a focus on the collective leads to building harmonious teams and selfless company missions. Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, was a renowned advocate of Jante and there is no denying it played a part in the empire he built. When people don’t value themselves above the team collectively, then collaboration is sincere rather than self-serving. Credit is shared evenly, egos are diminished, and trust is built.

On the other side, there are those who find the concept frustrating. They argue that sales teams will never truly succeed if they are shackled by such humility. Tales are told of talented Swedes being eclipsed by people from more self-aggrandising countries because the non-Swedes sell themselves better. In the highly competitive technology and venture capital worlds Jante has little place, some say. It quashes ambition and stops employees going the extra mile. Those with imposter syndrome admit their faults too openly. People don’t achieve above their status.

In Sweden Jante divides opinion. Abroad, however, it can provide office managers with some valuable insights. As the antithesis of the American Dream and exceptionalism, it can be a welcome antidote to a ‘dog-eat-dog’ business mentality. Your staff don’t need to adopt the concept wholeheartedly to appreciate its merits.

As the global workforce fills with Millennials and moves towards freelance and remote working, it might be easier to make every employee feel valued and unique rather than one of many. However, creating a culture where employees are humble and respectful towards each other's work can be very effective.

Whether Jante appears to you as unpalatable, or something worth incorporating, an analysis of your own workplace’s Jante levels can be a useful exercise.

Johnny Warström, CEO and co-founder of Mentimeter

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