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OPINION: There is a Swedish way of working – and it works

Is there really such a thing as the Swedish Management style? Well yes, argues David Crouch, author of a book on how Sweden works. And what's more, it's very effective.

OPINION: There is a Swedish way of working – and it works
Torbjörn Lööf, CEO of IKEA Inter, IKEA's holding company, watches designers choose patterns at the company's Design Days conference in 2018. Photo. Johan Nilsson/TT

Last month, a group of employees resigned in disgust from a branch of the Applebee’s restaurant chain in Kansas, USA. Around the same time, a group of employees resigned, no less disgusted, from a hospital in Sundsvall, central Sweden.

The Kansas restaurant workers had discovered that a senior manager wanted to force them to accept lower wages. In Sweden, management wanted to raise wages in a department that needed to attract staff.

In the US, the workers quit because management wanted to make life worse for them. In Sweden, they quit because management wanted to make things better for (some of) them. This seemed unfair to those who weren’t getting the pay rise.

These two disputes tell us something about the two countries – can you imagine the locations being reversed? There is something different about how Sweden runs its economy.

The central role of the Swedish trade unions in determining wages and regulating workplace relations is a big part of the explanation. It is much more difficult for companies to cut, or raise, wages or sack staff.

To an extent, Swedish business has made a virtue out of necessity, recognising that it often makes financial sense to treat people differently to how they do it at Applebee’s. This is especially relevant for a high-tech economy where workers are educated and highly skilled.

Much ink has been spilled trying to work out if there is a particular Swedish leadership style. This research suggests that distinguishing characteristics of Swedish management include a preference for teamwork and cooperation, a non-hierarchical approach, emphasis on consensus and conflict-avoidance, encouragement of autonomy and delegation of authority. A collection of interviews with Swedish managers concluded: “A flat corporate structure is a logical and cost-efficient way to operate, innovate and recruit.”

When I was doing interviews for — product placement alert! — my book about how Sweden works, I found plenty of managers prepared to vouch for a flatter, less hierarchical management style, in which employees question the boss and take initiative themselves.

A hierarchical, top-down structure is effective in an army, where one person tells 1,000 people what to do, said Henrik Eskilsson, founder of Tobii, a Swedish company making vision technology. But in a modern economy, the best system is one that enables 1,000 people to collaborate effectively without one person telling the other 999 what to do.

“You need 1,000 people doing the creative thinking, coming up with innovative ideas,” Eskilsson said. “The Swedish culture is well adapted to that, to dare to take decisions and make stuff happen.”

Eskilsson complained that in the US, employees expected to obey him. They found the Swedish leadership style confusing – because nobody was screaming at them, they felt they could relax and take it easy.

The Swedish way of working is perfect for complex software development teams, according to Stina Ehrensvärd, CEO and founder of Yubico, which makes IT security technology. “Sweden has the flattest organisations in the world, it’s okay to question your boss,” she said. “I am constantly telling my team they know more than me in their expert areas.”

Clara Colomes left Spain five years ago to work in HR for a Swedish company in Gothenburg. Spain is much more hierarchical, she says: if the manager said you had to do something, then you did it. “Here is it more based on trust, the leadership trusts the employees to do their job. In Sweden you don’t have to ask for permission. It is a more open leadership style, the way of working is more collaborative,” Clara says.

American Ginny Figlar spent five years at IKEA as a copywriter. She said colleagues felt more like family than co-workers, there was no hierarchy. “I’ve often reflected on my time working there and wondered if what I experienced was because I was living in Sweden or working at IKEA,” she said. “The line always seemed blurred to me. Was it the Swedish culture or the IKEA culture?”

Nobody is saying that corporate hierarchies don’t exist in Sweden. The hierarchy is there, it is just not so in-your-face. It’s capitalism, but with rounder edges.

For Ronnie Leten, the Belgian chairman of the board at Ericsson, this is “the modern way of working”. In the companies he leads, everyone has degrees and reads newspapers, so you can’t pretend you know better than them. “This means you have to work in participation – employees want to be part of it and understand why, and when they understand then they work together with you,” he told me.

Sweden’s way of working has emerged for all sorts of historical reasons – nobody sat down and planned it this way. But as education levels rise and more organisations seek to make use of their employees’ intellectual capital, steep hierarchies at the workplace are losing their appeal in many countries.

Management methods have emerged from Sweden’s unusual workplace environment that may be well suited to modern, complex organisations in which skilled workers produce innovative and sophisticated products and services. In this respect, Sweden has something the rest of the world can learn from.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University

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For members


OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.