What do Ikea and Volvo have in common? Aside from both companies hailing from Sweden, they share the Scandinavian tradition of Janteloven, or the Law of Jante: a series of rules that, in essence, command self-effacement and humility. In much of Scandinavian society, including the business culture, it’s anathema to be a loudmouth or big self-promoter. And some argue that this mindset is an engine of their business success.
An article in the International Business Times noted: “Perhaps unsurprisingly, global companies based in Sweden tend to be painted in 50 shades of Jante. For example, Ikea and H&M respectively offer simple furniture and clothing for ‘the people’ at cheap prices that remain in line with the ethos of attractive ordinariness. [Yet] both companies are huge capitalist success stories.”
This may come as a surprise to those who work in the States, where being loud and making yourself known around the office is considered the norm. And it’s not only in northern Europe where an introverted professional may feel at home.
The Australian proverb “the tall poppy gets cut down” and the Japanese “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” have similar to the Law of Jante connotations. While criticisms of these expressions—that they thwart ambition and are rooted in jealousy of those who are successful—are worthy of consideration, at their core such sayings engender an environment where the quiet professionals can prosper. And they offer a powerful counterpoint to the ethos of individualism in America, where extroverted professionals often thrive amid unrelenting competition against each other.
Uichol Kim, a psychologist at Inha University in Korea, who also consults with multi-national corporations such as BASF on team-building and innovation, told me that unlike in the United States, where “the individual is so visible,” in the Asian culture and business environment, teamwork and harmony are key.
“In Asia,” Kim said, “we are encouraged to reveal our self-worth indirectly, through our group affiliation.” This mindset can be found through much of Asia in the so-called “Confucian belt” of Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, and parts of other nations in the region.
“In Russia you have lots of people who are highly skilled but who are quite invisible, known by their colleagues but not by the culture at large,” Tatyana Fertelmeyster, an intercultural and communication consultant known for her expertise in Russian culture, told me. “Self-promotion and self-advocacy is normative for the U.S. mainstream,” she said, “whereas in general, Russians don’t self-promote.” She noted that in America, employees often won’t wait for a formal review to talk with their bosses to tell them what they are doing and what they’ve accomplished, but in Russia that behavior would be atypical.
Within each society, of course, there is variation. Even in the U.S., where being an outgoing “people person” is often considered the idealized professional temperament, it’s not the rule. In certain fields or positions within organizations where people tend to work alone or behind the scenes, e.g., as computer coders or back office accountants, extroversion is neither expected nor often rewarded.
Further, there are major American organizations where the corporate culture values those who aren’t prone to take over group brainstorming sessions or chat everyone up in the staff cafeteria. Mike Critelli, the former chairman and CEO of Pitney Bowes, reached out to me after the publication of Invisibles to express his solidarity with the values it extols. He told me that when he was at the helm of Pitney Bowes, he went out of his way to celebrate employees who often weren’t in the spotlight but could always be counted on to simply “get the job done.” Not all of those people were introverts, but Critelli’s attitude certainly supported those who were.
Today, the business culture like the one Mike Critelli fostered at Bowes is still in the minority at many American organizations. But by looking to companies in certain areas outside the U.S., we can be heartened and inspired by their examples, and perhaps moved to change the environment at home.