How to handle the egalitarian Swedish office

Swedish workplaces are famously non-hierarchical. How should those of us from more hierarchical cultures do to adapt, asks Nic Townsend.

From mentor to tyrant, a boss can be many things, but what makes them different in Sweden? The role of the manager in the Swedish workplace can be very different from other cultures, and whether you’re an employee or manager, you may need to do some adjusting.

“I think Swedish bosses are less hierarchical than Australian bosses,” says Aussie Lucinda Lines, an embryologist for medical technology company Vitrolife, who has lived in Sweden for four years. “In my experience they are more aware that they don’t actually know everything, so they are more inclined to ask for help.”

This can be seen in the typically informal nature of Swedish workplace. Swedish managers will be called by their first name, and they will work and interact on the same level as the employees, using the same facilities and joining daily rituals such as the fika break. From the outside they will almost appear as one of the gang.

Many of us from the English-speaking world will be familiar with authoritarian top-down management structures where, crudely speaking, the boss makes the decisions and everyone below is expected to follow. Swedish workplaces by contrast are more egalitarian with many decisions being made collectively and a stronger emphasis on consensus building.

“You feel like you have a voice with most managers,” says Andrew Low, who moved to Sweden from the UK two years ago to take up a job with Volvo Penta, which makes boats and marine equipment.

“Hierarchy isn’t always significant here and you feel like you can be a little outspoken, within reason of course…but if you need time off you don’t have to get on your knees and beg for it.

“As an employee there are more opportunities to contribute to decision-making processes. As a manager you’re expected to be more open to hearing ideas and input from your employees,” says Low, who since arriving has been promoted to the role of Market Support Manager.

In some cultures managers see their role as being the all-knowing leader who dispenses advice rather than receives it. But in Sweden such an approach will often come across as arrogant. Rather than keep their mouths and shut and just do what they are told, Swedes expect a little more freedom to make their decisions.

“Once a Swede has discussed something with someone and the response is positive it is interpreted as ‘this will be done’”, says Swede Johannes Hauptmann, who is manager of the Technical Services department of Volvo Penta.

“In contrast the American thinks ‘yes, I heard what you said but it is ultimately up to my manager,’ and so nothing happens.” In other words Swedish workers expect to be trusted and given a degree of independence and not necessarily have to run everything by their superior first.

Swedes often expect a degree of flexibility from their boss and as long as they are doing their job properly they don’t expect a high level of scrutiny. However don’t mistake this casualness and freedom as undisciplined anarchy. Your boss might not like to play the villain but they will if you give them reason too. “A manager will not make a big thing of being a manager if things are working well,” says Hauptmann, “But if things are not working well…there will be consequences and the manager will probably go into a more ‘military-style mode’ that may surprise a person from another culture.”

As an employee the worst thing you can do is get careless and abuse the freedom that’s been granted to you. As a manager, if you overly exert your authority you can quickly alienate your co-workers. Always be accessible and willing to listen. Once you adapt, the Swedish approach to management can make for a refreshing change.

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