Monday, August 25, 2008

In the Swedish Board Room and Working World

As August wanes and the shadows become noticeably longer and that breeze just isn’t quite as warm as it was a couple weeks ago, it becomes apparent that summer is leaving us way up here in the north. Even in Sweden, school has started, non-summer cities such as Linköping are startlingly full of people once again and business is in full swing.

For the past couple years, the readership of Linköpinglivin’ has been evolving. What started out as solely family and friends quickly became a whole lotta native Swedes. Then came foreigners visiting Sweden who were searching for something else and accidentally stumbled upon this peculiar, but informative, observation of Sweden and the Swedes in English. For any English speaker coming to Sweden to do work, this blog (or so I have been told) comes up repeatedly in all sorts of contexts (from directions to cafés to baby strollers and more).

I’ve recently started to consider particularly useful topics for the foreigner (be they American or not) to be aware of should their professional or personal life bring them to Sweden. This week’s topic will probably not be of much use or interest for a Swede, could perhaps provide some small interest to the American who is interested in business and company culture, but will be crucial for the foreigner coming to work in Sweden and wanting to understand the subtly different Swedish work world.

As with most considerations of culture and differences when examining Sweden, one must first start with the all-important Swedish Jante Law of “thou shall not consider thyself better than others.” Swedish equality and desire for participation and consensus is the key to understanding the Swedish work world. Bosses are not better than their subordinates and well-educated people are not paid nearly as much as their peers in other countries in comparison with less-educated employees. Decisions are made not necessarily by an authority at the top of a hierarchy, but by a group that only goes forward when consensus has been reached. Meetings are vital. Facilitating, not deciding, is often the role of the Swedish manager or CEO. There is still accountability and responsibility, of course, but this is not nearly as evident in the day-to-day behavior of employees.

Communication between colleagues is also a bit different due to the cultural expectation of non-confrontational communication. Communication is simply more courteous and softer, sometimes even sacrificing clarity amongst colleagues or within companies. All individuals in the company are accessible for everyone else – once again, no one is better or off limits to anyone else due to Jante’s famous law. Equality and personal pride are highly valued in all circumstances. In this way, communication and overall business in Sweden is much more like Japan than it is a European or American business environment. Teamwork, not individual achievement, is the most valued element of a Swedish work environment.

The Swedish office is noticeably more informal than the American or British counterpart. Jeans or slacks, along with an open collar and rarely a tie, is the norm. One should not stand out too much by dressing up or down (Jante Law, again), as opposed to the American rule of “you should dress for the next job you want.” Though in this age of globalization, one could make the argument that attire expectations are now guided more by industry than country, such as the informal and almost-juvenile dress expected at high-tech companies with young geniuses creating software for the next century.

A few other areas or interesting tidbits about the Swedish business/work world:

*With few exceptions, an 8 or 9 – 17:00 work day is expected throughout all industries in Sweden. If you work too much or not enough, you will stand out from your colleagues. If you haven't noticed yet, this is not a good thing in Sweden…

*Despite their nationwide pride in equality, the Swedish woman often has just as hard a time climbing the corporate ladder as her counterparts in other countries. There are still many “old boys clubs” throughout Sweden connected to University days, sailing clubs and other long-held, male-oriented fraternities.

*Unions are strong throughout Europe, but none more so than Sweden. It is virtually impossible to terminate the employment of a Swedish worker, unless there is some blatant breach of trust. This may sound good for the workers, but there are unfortunate consequences such as pushing employees out in other, arguably more emotionally painful ways, as well as lots of short-term contracts without company commitments to their workers. One realizes that there are two sides to every coin with having this much power to the people, in this case the work people.

*Emails in Sweden will often go without a response if the recipient is not in agreement or is uncomfortable with the topic of exchange. Rather than confront a difficult situation and cause a losing of face of one party or another, the lack of a response will serve as the clearest form of non-confrontational disagreement, which is understandably misunderstood by (and aggravating for) foreigners.

Okay, enough of a boring blog entry. If you have read this far, you must be coming to Sweden to take a job...congratulations.

Check back next week for some more fun from Linköping.

(Pictures above are of the most famous companies in Sweden, and one close to my heart that is slowly getting there….)


Andreas (you know who) said...

Actually Ericsson AB ( should have been on the list of the most famous Swedish companies... SonyEricsson is a joint venture between japanese Sony and Ericsson. Enough ranting...

britt said...

How interesting to read
for a Swede!
There would be less unemployment if employers were in control of their OWN companies. I know because my cousin struggled and struggled. He wanted to hire people but the risk of not being able to fire those that turned out to be disappointing, created a big problem for him. Are we like robots in Sweden?? So many rules, laws, regulations, etc. etc.

The U.S. is creeping so slowly toward loss of freedom but it is still a good place to live/work.