Sweden’s flat hierarchies: Myth or reality?

You’ll often hear Swedish companies refer to their organizations as ‘flat’ - but what does that actually mean and is it really the case? The Local investigates.

Published: Sun 17 Nov 2019 19:56 CEST
Sweden’s flat hierarchies: Myth or reality?
Photo: Pexels

Sweden has famously nailed work-life balance and its parental leave policies are envied the world over. Flat hierarchies are commonly cited as another perk of working in Sweden with advantages including more empowered employees and faster decision making. 

CEO of Swedish fire and risk assessment company Brandskyddslaget Martin Olander believes that so-called flat structures, which have few to no management levels between staff and executives, are a reflection of the egalitarian Swedes themselves. 

“We are very democratic people. Of course, there are people who are ready to take charge and step up and so on, but I think most people are raised to work as a team and involve more people in the decision making.”

To non-Swedes, the idea of an organization with little-to-no middle management might seem peculiar. Some may argue that a strong organizational structure is key to establishing internal control. For Olander and his employees, the flat hierarchy works well and is something they are all very keen to protect. 

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“Most people think we should keep it this flat for as long as possible. A lot of people take responsibility for different fields. And people are more engaged within the company and what we are doing if they are also able to be in charge.”

He explains that at his company, there are just two levels of management: his position as the CEO and group managers. To replace the need for more middle management, regular employees take on responsibilities for different areas of the business.

“You don’t need to be a group manager or a boss to be in charge,” explains Olander. “Everybody can make a decision - as long as it's aligns to the company's plan and you take responsibility for it and inform everybody who would be affected by it.”

Since taking over as CEO in 2009, the company has grown and Olander admits that decision making takes longer than it used to. It was easier to maintain the flat hierarchy, he says, when there were “40 or 50 people”.

Photo: Martin Olander

“Now that we’re 100, some decision making can take a lot more time. But it’s very easy to feel you can take responsibility. You’re always close to a decision if you need it. And people think it’s easy to speak to me, they don’t have to follow many steps to reach me.”

READ ALSO: Seven reasons you should join Sweden’s ‘a-kassa’

‘I think it’s a marketing tool’

Brazilian software engineer Túlio Ornelas wasn’t aware of Sweden’s flat hierarchies before he accepted a job at Swedish payment service provider Klarna. He says the concept was hard for him to wrap his head around as it’s a far cry from what he was used to.

“In Brazil, it’s very clear who your boss is. When you want to discuss your salary or a promotion or anything related to your career, you know who to reach out to. In Sweden, this is masked within the ranks.”

He believes that part of the problem may lie in the unclear definition of what a ‘flat hierarchy’ means. 

“I have an understanding of flat hierarchies and you might have a different one,” he tells The Local. “For me, it’s how fast someone can take a decision. If they have to go through one or two levels. And I think that works and exists.”

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Flat structures come with their own set of challenges though, he says, particularly when it comes to carving out your own career progression. 

Photo: Túlio (left) with colleagues

“What makes it harder for you as an employee is figuring out how to grow in the company. You interact with so many people and they all have different responsibilities. You feel like the person calling the shots is your boss but that’s just the person calling the shots for this project. The person evaluating your performance is someone else.” 

In Túlio’s opinion - and in contrast to the way things are run in Martin's company - it’s a misconception that a flat hierarchy means your average employee has an almost direct line to the CEO, even if it may sound that way.

“I think it’s a marketing tool. When you’re interviewing, it sounds like you have access to the CEO him- or herself. You’re only one or two people from the CEO so you think you can get your ideas through, but that’s not the reality.”

He says it may work like this in smaller companies but in certain larger companies many employees use the same title, so while it seems you’re only a couple of levels away from the big boss - you probably aren’t.

“In engineering companies, for example, everyone is an engineer, so it seems like there is only engineers and C level. But in reality, you have many types of engineers and a hierarchy within. So instead of three layers you have 20. So in that way, it’s a myth.”

That said, he admits that it’s not always a bad thing to have some distance between yourself and the CEO.

“When you have the C-Level meddling with your work, it actually gets worse because you get a straight top-down decision process. They lack a lot of context, so it’s not always a good thing to have the CEO on your table!”

READ ALSO: Nine reasons Sweden is heaven for employees

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Akademikernas a-kassa.


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