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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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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.