Cultural Differences – Sweden

(c) R-O-R-E-M

Geographical proximity to Sweden leads many people in Europe to underestimate the cultural differences. Sweden is a modern Western country, a democracy, a free market, and has many internationally successful companies. Thus, there shouldn’t be that many differences. But there are: there are many internationally successful companies throughout Europe as well as in Sweden, but their paths to success differ. Due to different living conditions in the past and present, there are different values and approaches to solving problems in society and, of course, in companies.

Other Values, Other Behavioural Patterns

In some cultures people learn, for example, values like punctuality, tidiness, cleanliness, discipline and a sense of duty. They learn courtesy and fixed social norms, learn to stand their ground and assert themselves despite tough competition. Whether in school, during vocational training, as part of some business cultures or in society as a whole – the motto is: The best wins. Some cultures tend to be elite-oriented. As a protective mechanism against this tough pressure to perform, people from these cultures like to avoid insecurity, by planning and organising everything down to the last detail and putting everything into writing or a contract, often following corporate hierarchies.

Swedes learn other things: They learn, for example, that every human is equal(ly good). Swedes learn that humility is also a positive thing in education, society and business. They learn that it is good to interact in a prudent, considerate and thoughtful way with each other. Swedes grow up with less time and performance pressure. Lots of things are approached with a relaxed attitude.

Thus the inner attitude, values and social norms in core areas are virtually the opposite in other countries and Sweden. This, of course, influences business life.

Swedish Management Culture

In everyday working life, the values that are important to Swedes become obvious when it comes to the question of the responsibilities a good manager should have. Although a cooperative management style does exist in other countries, managers tend to reply the following to this question: planning, decision-making, delegating and control. People from cultures, influenced by hierarchies, feel comfortable, if things are planned well, decisions are clear and responsibilities are obvious. It helps them to avoid insecurity. An approach that complies with this is seen as correct and good in such countries.

Since Swedes assume that all humans are, generally speaking, equal, and “humility” is rated as something positive in professional life, their response to the question of the responsibilities a good manager should have is different. Managers in Sweden should function more as the team’s coach or moderator, reach decisions together with and supported by the team, recognise and support the potential of their team mates, ensure a good working environment and make sure that everyone in the team is happy.

Different Approaches to Decision-Making

Under the assumption that all humans are equal(ly good), decisions in Sweden are reached by consensus. This requires a lot of talking in a lot of meetings. And because a decision should ideally be made by agreement, this process can take some time. If necessary, the decision is postponed and a further meeting scheduled at a later stage.

People from some cultures find this procedure during negotiations with Swedes normally ineffective. The postponement of a decision is even interpreted as a failure. Because people from some cultures are used to a very direct way of communicating, clearly marked hierarchies and a relatively authoritarian management style, decisions in some cultures are often made at management level and then communicated to the lower levels. Decision-making seems to work quickly and effectively this way. That’s why foreigners might find it difficult, to correctly interpret the Swedish behaviour when it comes to reaching a decision.

Swedes see big advantages in making decisions together. The joint goal is internalised by the team and accepted by everyone. Everyone knows what it is and can thus play a part in it. In other countries there is a risk that the decision itself and the goals linked to it are perceived differently within the team and not shared by everyone. It is even possible, that different (sub) goals are pursued. Time, energy and resources are possibly being wasted.

Swedish Project Management

According to Swedish management culture, project management is fairly team-orientated. In Sweden, the initial phase of a project is of vital importance for the success of the same. The first meeting of a newly formed project team focuses on the project assignment. Based on this, the team jointly formulates the goals linked to the assignment. This often requires several meetings. Between those meetings, team members coordinate with all those who assigned them to the project team, and all those who might be involved in the project and thus might have further ideas or contributions.

Business people from other countries might feel the Swedish initial phase of a project is too long, ineffective and almost a failure, because it “doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere”. Due to their own cultural imprint, they don’t realise what Swedes see as their strength in their approach: The initial phase lays the basis for a quick, flexible and smooth implementation phase. And studies have indeed shown that there are fewer disruptions, amendments and additional votes during the implementation of the project.

In other countries, it is often the project leader who is responsible for the structure, activities, schedule and the allocation of roles. The project team can then, of course, discuss and adjust this, but the main conditions of the project have been decided. People from other cultures feel that the fast, exact and detailed planning of a project is indispensable. Swedes, however, feel in this case left out, because they expect to be involved in the initial phase of the project. They therefore don’t identify themselves with the goal and thus don’t support the decisions made by management. Disputes are thus pre-programmed.

Using Cultural Strengths During Collaboration

A clear and detailed structure, interim goals, a schedule and the allocation of roles: What other business people prioritise is, of course, also beneficial for the implementation of a project and tends to be accepted by Swedish team members – as long as they have been integrated into the initial phase. The Swedish strengths, such as a high grade of identification and the flexible implementation phase, can then be successfully combined with the other culture’s strengths.

Uta Schulz

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner