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For years now Denmark has consistently landed amongst the top three happiest countries in the world: to work, to live, and to play. Gallup found that 18% of American workers are actively disengaged, meaning that they are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive”– this number for Danes however is only 10%. 

So what are Danes doing differently? Why is the workplace in Denmark so much happier than their counterparts around the world? 

To answer this question let’s take a look at Middlefart Sparekasse, where for nearly a decade, this local Danish Bank has earned recognition as the “Happiest Workplace in the World”. In addition, they also have the most satisfied customers of any bank in Denmark and consistently see great financial results. Situated near the quiet coastline on the island of Fyn, they are a bank with a 20-year history of creating a culture of participation, recognition, responsibility, service, and professionalism. 

This financial institution promotes a unique approach to employee engagement: self-directed leadership and personal growth. In fact, according to an article by Susanne Gargiulo of CNN Business, “Today, all new employees at the bank go through an NLP seminar and a self-directed leadership seminar. They train employees in empathy, stress management, and personal self-development, and they keep a coach on staff. The philosophy remains that if employees feel empowered through autonomy and access to personal development their productivity and overall satisfaction with increase and sick days and turnover rates will decrease.

Researchers Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci of the University of Rochester, are accredited with the Self-Determination Theory of Motivation, “ using the empirical process,

[they] have identified three innate needs that affect motivation–the needs for

competence (Harter, 1978; White, 1963), relatedness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Reis, 1994), and autonomy (deCharms, 1968; Deci, 1975)–that appear to be essential for facilitating optimal functioning of the natural propensities for growth and integration, as well as for constructive social development and personal well-being.” 
So what does this mean? Research shows that for more complex tasks, intrinsic motivation helps to drive higher performance. When the job itself is enjoyable and interesting, employees work harder and with greater focus and commitment and external motivations become irrelevant. 

Flemming Poulfeldt, Professor of Management at the Copenhagen Business School speaks to this model stating.Self-directed leadership doesn’t mean less leadership. On the contrary, it demands strong leaders to create a framework of support for employees to reach their full potential. Whether you call that coaching or something else, I think we’ll see more of it.”

In what other ways does Middlefart Sparkasse stand out? How can the rest of the world benefit from Arbejdsglæde (workplace happiness)? 

The building itself is designed to be sustainable with natural light and a sophisticated water system to provide heat in the winter and keep the building cool in the spring. 95% of the office space has a view of the water making the atmosphere that much more tranquil. The first level floor has kaleidoscopes designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s most famously known for his work, “Your Rainbow Panorama”-a 500-foot-long, ten-foot-wide circular walkway that rests, halolike, on top of Denmark’s ARoS Aarhus Art Museum.

As showcased in the research study “Lively Social Space, Well-Being Activity, Small-scale, low-cost urban design interventions, involving improvement in the quality of local public space, had a positive impact on liveliness and two forms of behavior related to well-being, namely, Taking Notice and Connecting with others”.  The importance of a positive work environment was examed further in the research study, “Social Capital and Prosocial Behavior”, where it was determined that “for most workers, weekends and holidays are significantly happier than weekdays, however for workers who think of their immediate superior as a partner rather than a boss and who report a high level of workplace trust, weekend effects are very small”. Although the exact costs of employee turnover vary from company to company, recent research (such as SHRM) predict that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs 6 to 9 months’ salary on average. For a manager making $40,000 a year, that’s $20,000 to $30,000 in recruiting and training expenses. High employee turnover can become costly quickly and the solution could be simple: care about the conditions in which employees work. 

What may seem little like providing free meals or having no set assignment of days off, all contribute to employee well-being and engagement. As referenced earlier in Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory, when we feel independent, competent, and seen we perform at a high level of functioning. Well-being in the workplace enhances creativity and improves performance. Promoting high social and self-awareness is woven into the very foundation of talent recruiting. Each new employee takes the DiSC Profile Assessment- published by Wiley, a non-judgmental tool used for discussion of people’s behavioral differences- which is said to “increase your self-knowledge: how you respond to conflict, what motivates you, what causes you stress, and how you solve problems, improve working relationships by recognizing the communication needs of team members, facilitate better teamwork and teach productive conflict, develop stronger sales skills by identifying and responding to customer styles and manage more effectively by understanding the dispositions and priorities of employees and team members” (DiSC Profile – What is DiSC®? The DiSC personality test and profile explained). Middlefart Sparkasse wants their employees to feel comfortable enough to express opinions even if they are criticisms of infrastructure and mutual respect is supported between older and younger employees. Strong individuals sure of themselves make up strong teams overall strengthening the company’s brand with 80% of new customers coming through referrals (Gargiulo, 2011). 

Immediate Takeaways You Can Implement Right Now to Increase High Performance:

  • Establishing weekly check-in meetings between managers and subordinates for feedback
  • Dedicating at least 25% of each employee’s job description to be determined through job crafting
  • Embedding at least one opportunity for self-development in every employee’s yearly development plan

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