Sweden’s Cultural Basics In Business

Sweden's cultural basics in Business
123rf.com/Andriy Popov

The first step towards a better understanding is to have a look at the ›World of the Swedes‹, what characterised the Swedes in the past and what characterises them today and, of course, it is necessary to compare these characteristics with other countries. This is the only way to comprehend in-depth why the Swedes are the way they are and why business life in Sweden sometimes works differently.

Geographic Impacts

Sweden is located on the northern edge of Europe and in the last two centuries it was spared from wars in its own country it also has a relatively homogenous population.

Moreover, Sweden is sparsely populated with 21 inhabitants per km² to date. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the 9.6 million inhabitants live in the triangle between Gothenburg, Stockholm and Malmö. Therefore, the population in the northern part of Sweden only counts approx. 11 inhabitants per km².

Traditionally, a major part of the Swedes lives on agriculture and forestry, in some regions on fishing. In contrast to traditional village communities and to a relatively strong urbanised culture in continental Europe (with exception of some regions) the settlements in Sweden are characterised by farms in individual locations in the middle of their estates.

Now, what has this brief look at Swedish regional studies and at the living conditions of the Swedes to do with business culture? A whole lot. The world view and the image of humanity which characterise Swedish society, the political debates and, of course, the business world as part of Swedish society to date, has developed against this background.

Culture finally is nothing else than a strategy to survive. It includes methods and rules for how certain things are done. Therefore, there is a causal relationship between the environment in which we live and the strategies which we develop to survive and to get along well with others. To get a small insight into the Swedish values and other (unspoken) rules it is worth trying to understand their traditional ways of living and working.

Peaceful And Consent-orientated

Almost every Swede has family roots in agriculture and forestry. Up to the present day, the Danish neighbours say about the Swedes that it is no wonder the Swedes are so quiet and calm. They plant their trees, wait for 40 years and then cut down the forest. In the northern part of Sweden, they even wait for 100 years or more until the forest can be cut down. Of course, the Danish people say this with a twinkle in the eye, but the Swedish tranquillity and calmness strike every continental European.

And if you have driven through the Swedish countryside before now, you will have perceived its relaxing effect. In comparison to continental Europe, even the traffic in Swedish (large) cities is relaxed. There is one more thing that results from agriculture and forestry with effect to this day: the traditionally lonesome location of the farms. Imagine, you are a farmer and forest manager the next farm is five, ten or possibly 40 km away. The temptation to argue with your neighbour is rather low (in contrast to continental Europe – where people enjoy arguing).

In Sweden, people look for consensual solutions and decide in consent – to the present day and also in business life.

Adventuresome Generalists

The traditionally lonesome position of the farms also means that the farmers and forest managers need to be generalists and they need to find solutions for everything by themselves. And this is exactly the strength of the Swedish business world: as generalists, they have a holistic view and are happy to try out new things.

The Swedes are open and curious and like to test new products and technologies. If it isn’t suitable, they have at least tried it out. No disaster; pragmatic, simply down-to-earth. Some international industrial companies have even made use of this fact by testing new products in the Swedish market first. If the product is a flop there it will also be a flop in other markets. If it is accepted, ›teething problems‹ can be removed and the product can be launched in other markets.

Swedish Basic Assumptions

There are some Swedish basic assumptions that also stem from the country’s historical and geographic background which strongly influence the Swedish social as well as commercial life. If you really want to understand the Swedes and their way of working, it is important to know these basic assumptions and values.

In companies, questions regarding what is right or wrong, good or bad, important or unimportant will always be answered by these standards. When asking questions Swedes often receive different and sometimes even contrary answers. Different approaches concerning communication, decision making, leadership, organisation etc. derive from the Swedish worldview and image of humanity.

And there is another important reason to deal with the Swedish values and to get familiar with them: you will be ›measured‹ exactly by these values to determine whether or not you are a good business partner, a good leader, a good colleague or a good supplier.

On the other hand, people from other countries may conclude from their observations that Swedish managers are ›weak‹. That, however, is a fallacy. In Sweden the results and figures also need to be correct and that without fuss or quibble. And they follow this principle as many international com[1]parisons and indicators show.

Assumption 1: all humans are equal!

In Sweden, it is quite natural that all humans are equal and this insight is gained by everyone from a young age at the latest in kindergarten. This assumption runs through the entire society, through education and health care and it characterises the way people treat each other in business. It explains the flat hierarchies in Swedish companies as well as the legal entitlement to equal health care for all inhabitants and many other things. Where this assumption comes from cannot be said with absolute certainty and clarity.

Presumably, it stems from the many regions with a relatively equal rural population and from the labour movement which wanted to generate wealth for everybody.

Assumption 2: humbleness is positive!

While in some countries humbleness is perceived if not as a negative trait so at least as a weakness. In Sweden, it is a virtue which the Swedes learn from an early age. In Sweden, it is considered wrong to distinguish oneself.

Let us have a look at an example from real life: in 2006, when Fredrik Reinfeldt was elected Prime Minister for the first time debates were held in the media why he was considered a suitable leader. The unanimous opinion in Sweden was: because he is so humble. Being humble is surely no selection criteria for an executive in other countries. So for example, the question of what is expected of an executive will be answered differently by business people from Sweden than from other countries due to their respective value concepts and basic assumptions. The Law of Jante is closely connected with the basic assumption of humbleness is positive.

Assumption 3: the law of Jante

The Law of Jante goes back to the Danish author Aksel Sandemose who described in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (Sandemose, A., A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, 1936) the mental climate of his hometown in the early 20th century. When the novel was published in 1933 there was also a recognition effect in Sweden. Since that time, the Law of Jante is an established term. The Law of Jante includes 10 commandments, all with the same message: ›Don’t believe you are special!‹

In a very natural way, this unspoken law prevents people from distinguishing themselves and occupying centre stage. This is a very important issue when dealing with business partners and fellow workers!

Another real-life example: during an intercultural team-building event in a large German-Swedish industrial enterprise a Swedish executive told his German colleagues that he had bought himself a brand-new Porsche the
week before. This statement alone is nothing extraordinary. The point is though: when he drove his new Porsche for the first time he thought very carefully about where to drive along in order to avoid meeting anybody who knew him! A perfect Jante strike!

Humbleness and the Law of Jante guide the interaction between people also in business. This has quite precise effects on the use of status symbols, on organising, on decision finding, on communication etc.

Assumption 4: omtanke is essential!

Omtanke is another Swedish value that runs through the whole society and which characterises human relations also at the workplace. In principle, omtanke is the core idea of the Volksheim, a welfare state for everybody.

There is neither a direct equivalent for this term in the English language nor for the phenomenon omtanke. A possible description could be: omtanke is an emotional need, a deep desire that the others are doing well and feeling comfortable. And I am responsible for this. If someone is disadvantaged, this disadvantage needs to be compensated.

There are many practical indicators for this. Thus, a law established in the 1980s regulates that all public buildings (e.g. churches, clubhouses, libraries etc.) must have an elevator so that nobody is excluded from par[1]ticipation. One part of the investment costs for the elevator is paid by the state and the remaining costs by the organisation in question. Excluding humans in any way e.g. from infrastructure or from local public transport is unthinkable against the omtanke background and considered really rude from a Swedish point of view.

Many more social and economic examples could be stated for omtanke. At this point, however, special attention should be given to the fact that omtanke also means a special obligation and responsibility for companies and managers.

Assumption 5: lagom är bäst!

Lagom is the best! There is no equivalent for the word ›lagom‹ in English either. ›Lagom‹ means that something is ›just right‹: not too warm, not too cold, not too slow, not too fast – just right.

A Swedish manager once explained ›lagom‹ to his colleagues from abroad as follows: ›Good is good enough for us!‹ This might make quite a few foreign engineers or managers aware that there are different opinions regarding their striving for perfection …

Assumption 6: time is quality!

The calmness and tranquillity of the Swedes have already been pointed out. This phenomenon also has a direct impact on business life. While in some countries working at high speed is indeed seen positively and work actually starts to be real fun from a certain pace onward, Swedes feel the need to discuss things in a calm way, listen to each other, do some research, ask questions and to find a common consent. Taking their time for this and for each other is a display of quality for the Swedes!

Working under time pressure is virtually unthought of in Sweden and that some people don’t take their time is hard for them to comprehend.

Assumption 7: trust is natural!

Assuming that humbleness is positive, and that other people are as good as I am and that they treat me with omtanke, I will naturally come to the conclusion that I can trust them.

Since continental Europeans tend to be rather sceptical of anything unfamiliar and like to be on top of things, the Swedes are sometimes perceived almost a little bit ›naive‹ when it comes to business. They simply assume that other people will treat them well.

From a Swedish point of view, it is for example sufficient to make oral agreements. Often, they do not even think about a written agreement. It’s considered unnecessary, inconvenient, and sometimes even infringing because this could express mistrust.

Uta Schulz

Extract from Business Culture Sweden, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag

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