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How to play office politics in Sweden... and survive

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How to play office politics in Sweden... and survive
Swedes are renowned for their ability to cooperate and collaborate. Photo: Simon Paulin/Imagebank Sweden
08:12 CEST+02:00
Most articles on Swedish office culture gush about the lack of hierarchy, the reasonable working hours, and the absence of dog-eat-dog competition. But most newcomers soon realize it's not (always) quite as nice as it appears. Here's how to play Swedish office politics and win.
Sweden is famous for many of the things above, and we're not about to disagree.
 
But working in an office almost always comes with its own set of unspoken rules, so we asked our readers to share their insights. 
 
Competing in a 'flat' hierarchy 
 
Swedish workplaces purport to be egalitarian places. Everyone goes by their first name. The boss turns up in sneakers and jeans. In meetings even the intern gets their say. 
 
But an international executive at a major car company told The Local he had quickly realized that the corporate culture was not so utopian. 
 
"In my experience the more collaborative, less competitive working environment in Sweden is a myth," he said. "I have rarely experienced as much office politics as I have in Sweden." 
 
Indeed, the downside of Swedes' well-documented aversion to conflict is that rival executives and divisions often go directly to superiors to complain, rather than raising issues face-to-face. 
 
"As a manager, I get people coming to me constantly, saying what this or that person has done wrong," one British manager complained. "I often feel more like I'm working in a kindergarten." 
 
She said her response was to try to encourage staff to confront the person directly. 
 
"The number of times I've spoken to staff and said, 'well, have you told them that you think this is unacceptable? No? Well then go and tell them'. This whole campaign builds up against a person before they've even been told about it." 
 
 
The car company executive said he had himself been a constant victim of this 'telling tales' technique. 
 
"We tend to hear top-down 'oh, there's a problem between your department and another department'. Well, no one told us. I think it's strange that it goes top-down for something that should be a working-level issue". 
 
In a sense, he conceded, this is a consequence of having lower levels of hierarchy. 
 
"In that respect, it is a 'flat' organization, because in Sweden you can go straight to the vice president because there isn't that fear that you're wasting their time with something that isn't important." 
 
The only solution he had found was to work as hard as he could to improve communication with other executives and divisions so he could identify conflicts and deal with them before they were used as a pretext to undermine him. 
 
The British manager said she had tried to act as a mediator and compel her teams to air their grievances directly. 
 
"This seemed to break the Swedes: the thought of actually having to sit down and talk the issue through with the person concerned made them so anxious I had one person asking to leave the room and the other in tears. And that's just asking them to talk them through an issue." 
 
 
Has this man come to visit his boss to report on a colleague's failings? Photo: Susanne Walström/Imagebank Sweden
 
Meetings where everyone has their say
 
Perhaps the central plank of Swedish office culture is the group meeting where everyone gets to have their say. The idea is that everyone says what they think, and decisions are taken only when all of this input has been considered. 
 
To foreigners these meetings often seem pointlessly long and inefficient, but they are important to the Swedish sense of egalitarian, collaborative decision-making, and they are also a way of making sure that as nothing important gets missed. 
 
 
Foreign executives The Local spoke with recommended treating big group meetings as a formality, a ritual which needs to be endured. The real discussions, they said, needed to be held beforehand. 
 
"Pre-meeting meetings where you gather forces to ruin the boss' plans. They are a must," one British worker joked. 
 
He claimed the key to success was to identify allies in advance of the group meeting and then work together with them to push through something you want, or to kick an unwelcome proposal into touch. 
 
"Before a meeting you get a protokoll [a list of what is to be discussed], and if there's something you don't agree with or don't want to do, you discuss it with colleagues and work out who agrees or disagrees," he said. 
 
"Then when you have the main meeting you share your thoughts or opinions and back each other up." 
 
"The key is to do lots of pre-meetings where you can get consensus," the car executive agreed. "So you can say, 'we agree on this, here's the proposal', or say, 'we disagree with each other and we need to go higher up for resolution'."
 
Is the woman drawing the graph to the left in the middle of a long filibuster? Photo: Susanne Walström/Imagebank Sweden
 
Breaking bad news and the Swedish filibuster
 
If you have bad news or criticisms to bring to a meeting, it is doubly important to have allies to back you up, and also crucial that you frame your criticisms in as positive a way as possible. 
 
"I have to be very soft and watch my words, and give a lot of positive feedback, which makes everything very heavy," said an engineer who moved to Sweden a few years ago from Switzerland. "You have to soften them up."
 
But couching criticisms and uncomfortable topics in positive statements doesn't always work, one Swedish executive who had worked internationally warned, as your Swedish colleagues might deliberately seize on the positive aspects you bring up and ignore the bad news. 
 
 
He claimed Swedes commonly used a filibustering technique to ensure unwelcome proposals or criticisms don't get airtime in meetings. 
 
"Usually it starts with a "Ja..." which in no way means 'Yes' in answer to a statement you made. Then it deflects into more or less a red herring that does not contradict what was said. The person also often endlessly informs everyone about all positive things about the matter instead of addressing the issue."
 
"For example, you all built a house but it is missing a roof, and someone points it out. But the one called out on the issue just points out that it is so great that there are walls, windows, a garage, that the garden is done, but not when or how the roof is getting installed or fixed."
 
"Then the conversation usually drifts back on track, but bypassing the original concern and the person who raised it is more or less ignored for the rest of the meeting."
 
Are these two old university friends turned colleagues plotting against the rest of their team? Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/Imagebank Sweden
 
Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others
 
If you visit the headquarters of a big Swedish company like Ikea, Volvo, Scania, or Spotify, you'll find executives from across the world.
 
But the Swedes often predominate, and many international executives complain that Swedish employees have an unfair edge, finding it easier to win both promotions and the ear of their superiors. 
 
"There's a 'boy's club network', but this being Sweden, there are women in the boy's club too," the car executive said. "A lot of the people know each other from school and personal relationships, and this seems to take precedence quite often over collaboration with other people." 
 
As very little after-work socializing takes place in Sweden, it can be almost impossible to form your own rival personal relationships with colleagues and superiors. This makes the social spaces that do exist, particularly the daily breaks for fika (coffee and cake), doubly important for foreign executives. Don't miss the opportunity. 
 
If you do work for a big company, it's worth joining company sports clubs, so that you can meet other employees in a social setting. And if you work for one of the few companies that still runs its own holiday village, it's worth taking a holiday there in the hope that you might strike up useful friendships. 
 
Is this man the only one of the team not to have been invited to a night out? Photo: Ruud Vidar/NTB Scanpix/TT
 
'The Swedish freeze-out'
 
The British manager said she had been shocked when she first took up her role in Sweden to witness her team subject an unpopular and, they felt, less competent member of staff to what she called "the Swedish freeze-out". 
 
"The rest of the team had all decided to go out somewhere after a work event, and only one person wasn't included in that invitation," she said. "I wasn't included as I was the boss, so we ended up having dinner together and she said, 'did you notice I haven't been invited?'."
 
The manager said that in the months leading up to the dinner, she had received almost daily visits from various team members complaining about this employee in what had seemed like a concerted campaign. The employee revealed that the Swedish team members had for weeks collectively stopped socializing with or even speaking with her. 
 
A Latin American living in Stockholm complained that the same thing had happened at a café she had worked at, with the manager, she believed, instructing the other employees not to talk to her. 
 
For the British manager, the freeze-out seemed "really nasty", but to some Swedes it might feel like a less confrontational way of dealing with a problem colleague. 
 
 
If you are subject to this sort of subtle workplace bullying and it is so serious and deliberate you do not feel comfortable bringing it up with your colleagues directly, the best way to respond, as is often the case in Sweden, is through official channels. 
 
Many workplaces in Sweden have a skyddsombud, or 'health and safety ombudsman', to whom other employees can go. The ombudsman is normally appointed by the local union, and will try to resolve the issue. 
 
From the point of view of some cultures, reporting your colleagues to a union official for bullying would seem almost certain to make the situation worse.
 
But Swedes generally have more respect for systems, meaning they are more likely than you might expect to take an official reprimand seriously, and realize that they have overstepped the mark. 
 
Is this person suffering from a 'Swedish freeze out'? Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
 
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Using you own tolerance for conflict to your advantage
 
Some foreigners said they had learned to use Swedes' dislike of open conflict against them. "I personally enjoy open 'conflict' as a foreigner here," one Brit said. "I get what I want and the Swedes feel uncomfortable. Win-win!" 
 
He recommended wrong-footing Swedes by raising demands unexpectedly bluntly in meetings. 
 
"Just demand reasonable things and then stay silent, but don't move. They fill the silence with awkward noises. Repeat your argument. Say nothing. You win. The Swedes are scared of any conflict and awkward silence." 
 
 
The engineer said she similarly tried to put Swedes on the spot in such a way that they could not evade the issue she wanted to discuss. 
 
"They like to not be specific enough, or they like to say something very general and then drop the responsibility on someone else," she complained. 
 
The solution, she said, was to continually ensure that everything was documented, with the name and position of who is responsible for which task. 
 
"We send documents all the time to verify information and verifying on emails people's names, so we have someone who is responsible."
 
Remember that while Sweden's office culture isn't perfect, it is actually pretty good
 
For all these reports, it's worth bearing in mind that Sweden's approach to work is actually pretty enlightened, with sensible working hours, space left for family life, and an understanding approach to stress and burn-out. 
 
A British executive at another car company said that he still relished the much lower levels of open conflict than he had been used to in the UK. 
 
"My entire job was basically being yelled at by everyone above me and having everyone else not really contribute while taking the credit," he said. "But here the more level playing field means I can do more by doing less, because I'm not constantly fighting uphill battles." 
 
The man said he found communication with his Swedish colleagues quite straightforward, and that he appreciated being given clear explanations when his proposals were rejected. 
 
"It's a relief, because I was used to coming to work wound up and feeling awful at the end of the day," he said. "It's a proper lifestyle change, so I'm happier and healthier, and less angry all the time." 
 
Even the car executive who had been at the wrong end of the tale-telling technique said he didn't believe the office politics in Sweden was more extreme than in other countries, just more understated. 
 
"I don't want to say that it's particularly worse, but it's not a utopia, where there's no competition and everyone is super-collaborative. But I think that's human nature."
 
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a foreigner - 01 Sep 2019 11:44
Thanks for this great article, which is very much spot on. I'm working at a Swedish university and the situation is exactly what has been described by the article! Sociologist Allan Pred has published an excellent research on Swedish culture of goodness, tolerance, and racism in his book "Even in Sweden" (2000), which I highly recommend.
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