Leadership In Sweden

leadership in Sweden

In some countries, managers are supposed to set goals, make decisions, delegate tasks and check on their fulfilment. Sometimes they are also expected to serve as a role model and to back up their staff, as has been described to me time after time. It would be very desirable – and that is something from the ›realm of desires‹, as is explained with a chuckle – if managers motivated and promoted their staff.

In contrast to other countrys’ firms, in which decisions are often made at the top level of management and then communicated top-down, in Sweden, there is also communication from the bottom up. And that implicitly means that they understand leadership differently and that the tasks of managers are at least given other priorities.

The topic of leadership in Sweden is interesting for you even if you do not and will not have leadership responsibilities for Swedish staff. And there are two good reasons for that: on the one hand, you can recognise and learn from this topic how Swedes ›function‹, how Swedish values and basic assumptions have explicit consequences for business life. On the other hand, you as a person and as a business partner will be judged on how you treat your own colleagues and staff and how responsibly your firm acts toward the staff members. If you want to be perceived as a good business partner the topic of leadership in Sweden is an important factor for success.

Swedish Grassroots Democracy

According to the Swedish view, all people are equal (equally good) and modesty is positive – that very fact forbids a person from forcing his will on others or imposing on them – even if he or she is a manager.

In a training session, a foreign board member asked his Swedish colleague if it could possibly be true that he sometimes left a discussion with a different decision than he had intended before the meeting. To the astonishment of the board member from abroad, the answer was ›But of course!‹ As the Swedes put it so nicely, decisions are often made at the grassroots level, that is at a lower or even the lowest level of the hierarchy. And the Swedes regard just that as their strength. One person alone cannot know everything – not even a manager (modesty is positive). So it is regarded as advisable to draw as many people as possible into decision-making, because the more viewpoints, ideas, crossovers and suggestions are taken into account, the better and more sustainable the decision will be.

That Swedish board member pointed out that it would be very stupid if after consulting his staff members he ignored their valuable contributions. If Swedish managers do not decide, which tasks do they have at all?

Defining Goals Collectively!

In many countries, staff members are highly specialised and on the whole trained to do what they are told to do, often very precisely, exactly, and in detail. As already explained, Swedes all have equal rights, they are all-rounders, and think in overall terms. They do not do things until they understand why! So the task of the manager is to give their staff members comprehensive information and to define or specify the goal together with them.

Perhaps we can have a quite simple example from handcrafts: a mason ›complained‹ to me that his Swedish supervisor had come to him on Monday morning at the building site and explained to him that the wall was to be built from here to there and that the material would be found there. Then the supervisor disappeared and did not come back until Friday afternoon to find out how things were going.

The question of the mason was: ›Is my boss not at all interested in what I’m doing?‹ He was used to receiving exact instructions on what and how and when he had to do things, in a discussion about the construction every morning, and in the evening that was checked very carefully. From the Swedish point of view, it is important to define the goal: the wall is to be built from here to there. If necessary, special requirements are elaborated on. Apart from that, Swedes assume that the staff member, in this case, the mason, is professional and has an overview that lets him make all the decisions himself. It would be a breach of trust to give him detailed instructions! And then to check up on him …

That is quite a simple, graphic example from the construction industry on leadership in Sweden. But that is just the way work is done in Sweden, also in other areas. So define your goal together with your Swedish staff, keep them comprehensively informed, and shed light on the whole field. With that you enable your staff to work independently and on their own responsibility – that is your job as a manager.

The Key Word ›Anchorage‹

Swedes believe in collective intelligence – but without calling it that, because that sounds almost arrogant. Defining goals collectively is therefore the basis for the (actual) decisions that result from that, and that must be anchored in the team, that is, everyone is responsible for them. If a decision is not anchored in the team, from the Swedish point of view no decision has been made. So one of the central tasks that managers and project leaders in Sweden have to be aware of is to anchor the goal and the decisions in the team.

The Manager Is A Coach!

As well, managers in Sweden should take on the function of a coach: recognise and promote potential. That, managers from other countries object, they, of course, do too! Of course. But in Sweden that task is more highly prioritised and in combination with the other tasks gives a different overall picture.

Omtanke Is The Main Thing

Good working conditions are absolutely necessary for good results – that is agreed to unanimously by managers in other countries and Sweden. Good working conditions include e.g., work safety, appropriate lighting, ergonomic keyboards and desk chairs, and also healthy food that the employer looks after. But in Sweden, good working conditions extend further and deeper. This is attributed to omtanke, and that goes beyond the imagination of managers in other countries.

If binational managerial teams divided into national groups are asked to write down their tasks, most usually the above-mentioned tasks are named. When I ask Swedes where the responsibility for the sense of wellbeing lies, they are mostly indignant and say that it is taken for granted, that does not have to be mentioned separately! Since the word and the phenomenon of omtanke do not exist in most other countries, that is just not taken for granted at all there. International managers are not aware of omtanke and feel no need for it.

The most important and highest task of a Swedish manager is to see to a good work atmosphere and that all the staff members feel at ease! Not because Swedes are ›good people‹, but because Swedes are firmly convinced that is the only way the staff can perform well. Presumably, many managers would have nothing to say against that. But the Swedish sense of wellbeing goes far further and deeper than most people imagine.

Be Attentive!

Perhaps one example of many possible ones: when the severe tsunami struck the Indian Ocean on 26th December 2004 many Swedish tourists lost their lives. The headlines of the major daily papers were: how could that topic be handled at work? That in itself is worth noting! It was recommended that after the Christmas holidays the staff should be called together for a group discussion to find out who was directly or indirectly impacted, what the mood was, and how to support the shocked staff members. I described that recommendation to a group of international managers interested in leadership in Sweden, and the spontaneous reaction was: ›Why that? I’m not a religious counsello

Yes! That is exactly what a good Swedish manager should be in that situation. How can a staff member do good work when he is suffering shock and has just lost a close relative? It is part of the series of tasks related to omtanke and a good atmosphere to search with a staff member for a good solution if there are family problems, or if looking after the children is difficult. Always the person in his whole personality should be the first priority and not only the employee in fulfilling his tasks – and as a manager in Sweden, you are responsible for just that!

Take A Break At Times!

In the course of the morning and the afternoon staff in Sweden come together for fika, which means that they drink coffee and eat something small (often financed by the employer) with the whole team collectively. This takes place during working hours!

Whereas managers in other countries shake their heads or roll their eyes at such a loss of work time, the Swedes don’t regard those breaks as wasted time. What do you talk about when you are together with colleagues? Mostly about your work. Of course, private matters are discussed too, but in general, it is an uncomplicated, informal exchange about the present state of things.

As a manager in Sweden, you definitely should join in those breaks (perhaps not all of them, but as often as possible). That way you show that you are a nice, friendly, and relaxed person and are interested in your staff – and that is absolutely necessary to be a good boss.

Pay Attention To The Interior Design!

The question of the interior design of renovated or new buildings is often raised with a view to practical details. In Sweden too, but not only. For Swedes, it is enormously important to consider how the interior is designed and how the overall appearance is perceived – and naturally, it is the whole team that makes decisions in consensus.

A Dutch section leader reported to me, shaking his head, that his section in Stockholm was to shift into a new building in six months. And he had already been at the building site twice with his whole team to explore ideas for the colours, curtains, the foliage plants, and cosy corners to sit. That too is a part of omtanke; setting up and accompanying that decision-making process is taken for granted as work for the boss.

A foreign chain of building supply stores, which meanwhile is represented in all of Sweden, overlooked just that point. When the first building supply stores were opened the staff and the trade unions and the media noticed that there were no nicely arranged break rooms and quiet areas for the staff. In addition to the fact that that circumstance caused great damage to the image and the worst possible start in the new market, the company chain was forced to alter the construction of all of its stores to provide common rooms suitable for the staff according to the Swedish point of view. And that probably cost a bit …

Think Of The Firm’s Environment!

Omtanke is not confined to your responsibility for your staff and your firm. You are also answerable for the fair treatment of your suppliers, and for responsible behaviour in relation to the protection of nature, the environment, and animals. When translating company philosophies and policies time and again I come across sentences in the Swedish original such as ›We have a modest attitude to our staff, but also to our suppliers and clients, and to nature and the environment.‹ Even if we understand such statements on a verbal basis, we are lacking the cultural context to put them in the right place.

Choosing Managers

In a discussion, during a coaching session, a board chairman once asked me how to recognise a good Swedish manager. The average age of board members in his large industrial company was over 55, and he wanted to promote Swedish trainees from a subsidiary. However, by his observations, he could not spot any outstanding, charismatic managerial personalities among the Swedes. How could he, in a culture in which modesty is positive and where the law of Jante holds? He did nevertheless admit that when he entered into discussion with his Swedish staff members they were quite intelligent, qualified, and competent! Well then?

Perhaps a small enlightening anecdote from my youth: when I went to school in Sweden I learned a lot of new things that I then wanted to discuss with my friends. Simply because I enjoyed that. I did not drop my attempts to discuss even when my topics quite obviously did not evoke resonance. After a few weeks of that one of my Swedish friends said: ›Uta, we know you know a lot! You don’t always need to show that!‹ I had absolutely no intention of showing off! I simply wanted to discuss! Because that is how it is done (in German-speaking countries). From the Swedish perspective, I had been putting on airs as a know-it-all.

And that is what it is like in the world of work: Swedish staff members know a lot, they are highly competent and well qualified – but they do not show it! That is exactly what is expected of a good Swedish manager. (S)he should be competent, not least so as to accompany and promote staff members. But (s)he will not show that as clearly as might be usual in other countries.

If you should be given the task of choosing managers for Sweden make sure that they meet Swedish criteria and demands. If you do not want the motivation of the staff there to suffer.

What Is Motivating?

The same board chairman who asked how to recognise a good Swedish manager also asked me how you could motivate the Swedes to perform if modesty is positive and the law of Jante rules. And that is also a very good question when discussing leadership in Sweden!

If you ask Swedes why they go to work the answer is prompt: ›To have fun and meet people!‹ And that attitude is confirmed by a whole series of studies. Swedes cultivate their social contacts at work and not after work.

After a training session with professionals a Swedish engineer, who had begun to work in Germany immediately after studying, said he now understood why he was in conflict with his team colleagues so often. His colleagues were always asking how they could win out over the other departments. He was always asking how they could understand the other departments better. To look on colleagues as rivals is foreign to Swedes – colleagues are friends. And that is motivating!

A Balance Of Work And Life Is Imperative

One thing that motivates Swedes to choose one employer over another is, among other things, the work-life balance. The better an employer guarantees that the more attractive the company generally is among employees – and that is how it has been for many, many years. In principle that is self-explaining if you recall how high the proportion of fully employed women and men is. If you want to start a family, that is possible only with the full support of the employer.

At the end of the 1990s in a media firm I know in south Sweden with about 150 staff the systems administrator was regularly present only from 7 am to 4 pm at the latest. The reason: he had to fetch his children from kindergarten. For that he was not at all regarded as a ›wimp‹; he was highly and explicitly esteemed by his colleagues and the managers – at the end of the 1990s! That systems administrator was highly motivated and the hours he put in at work were highly concentrated and efficient.

And that is an observation that you can apply in principle to Swedish staff: the more you meet them with
omtanke and good solutions for private life, the more motivated they will show themselves in the company – and perform.

Exciting Tasks, A Lot Of Room For Deciding!

That the type of work tasks plays an important role in motivation, ought not to surprise anyone in other countries either. Nevertheless, that aspect is understood more comprehensively in the ›country of the all-rounders‹.

A young Swedish heating engineer was dissatisfied with his German parent company because he was getting exact instructions on how he was to sell and to install which products in the form of handouts and handbooks. He said that the instructions coming from Germany could not be applied in Sweden. The declining success of the Swedish subsidiary confirmed him in that.

The more difficult business was getting on the Swedish market, the more detailed were the instructions coming from Germany. He complained that nobody in the German company management would even listen to him! He had concrete ideas on strategy, marketing, and solutions for individual clients, etc. The problem of the German management was that nobody expected a ›quite normal little plumber‹ to think entrepreneurially and that it would be worthwhile to listen to him.

Since that heating engineer was totally ignored in Germany and he could not and was not allowed to work as an all-rounder and entrepreneurially, he thought about leaving the firm. In that case, you certainly cannot speak about motivation …

Do not limit your Swedish staff to their specific task area! That would be the best way of demotivating them. It would be just as false to give them exact and detailed instructions and take away their freedom to decide. To illustrate that, a further example:

I was on a visit to a Swedish firm in which a manager from abroad had started working six months earlier. When I met him in a corridor I asked how he was doing and whether he liked it there. ›Ye-es,‹ he said, ›quite okay, per se.‹ Everyone was nice and friendly to him and he had a good feeling. But his secretary would not do what he told her to. Since there was little time, that statement was not elaborated on, and we took our leave of each other

I met that secretary in the lift and asked her how things were with her new boss. ›O-oh yes,‹ she said, ›he’s quite nice and friendly.‹ They got on well together. ›But,‹ she added with a grin, ›I don’t do what he says…‹ To my question ›why?‹ she said with a silent smile that she would not accept orders.

To put it straight: that manager was quite a nice and friendly man. It was just that he had delegated tasks exactly and in a detailed way and tried to check up as he was used to doing in his country – and that was highly demotivating for his Swedish secretary!

What Role Does Money Play?

Of course, remuneration is also a motivation and plays a role in the choice of an employer. Who works well should also be paid well. But the above mentioned ›soft factors‹ are also important – more so than in other countries.

Swedish management and motivation may sound a bit ›fantastic‹ and unimaginable. How can you survive with such attitudes in globalised competition? Someone who should know that is Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA. In an interview in November 2013, he answered the question of why IKEA has for many years been one of the most popular employers although no particularly high salaries or other advantages are offered and although everybody has to start at the cash register (even after studying for five years): ›The cause is the firm’s culture […]. IKEA has more than 100,000 employees who make up for my incompetence and my ignorance. I learn more from talking to staff in the branches than talking to management […]. I have a need to go through the warehouses, to shake hands with the staff, or perhaps to embrace them. Proximity and love are important. In the last two months, I have shaken hands with at least 1,000 people […].‹13 Strong words – the strength of Swedish management and motivation par excellence!

Uta Schulz
Extract from Business Culture Sweden, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag 

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