From the car industry with companies such as Volvo, to furniture from IKEA, music from ABBA, or technology in the form of Spotify and Skype, Swedish exports have made imprints around the globe. Relying heavily on imports and exports, and having many companies gone global, it is highly likely that business people from international companies will encounter the Swedish business culture. To better understand the Swedish business culture, one must first understand one of its most important aspects, working in teams.
The Swedish culture has a history of egalitarianism that works as a moral compass for many Swedes, the core essence of which is fairness and equality. This egalitarian nature is reflected in something the Swedes call Jantelagen, which refers to a hidden social rule where humility and self-restraint are considered important codes of conduct. To summarize, the essence of the code is that you should not consider yourself better than someone else.
It is also impossible to talk about Swedish culture, without mentioning the notion of what the Swedes call lagom. There is no word in English that directly corresponds to lagom, but a possible description of the notion is “everything in moderation”. Everything should be made in “just the right amount”; working “just the right amount”, exercising “just the right amount”, eating “just the right amount”, or even talking “just the right amount”. Although lagom and Jantelagen are not the same, the two are interrelated and emanate from the egalitarian idealism.
In Sweden, most people do not care about fancy titles, and boasting is considered very rude. Unless speaking with the royal family or a judge in a courtroom, people in Sweden are used to being addressed on a first-name basis. Many foreign business people might see this as a sign that the relationship has taken a more friendly nature, but this reflects the Swedish egalitarian culture rather than status of the relationship.
The egalitarian culture also affects how Swedes communicate and make decisions. Communication in Sweden takes place in a gentle manner and although they are direct, they are always considerate of the other person, meaning that you should never köra över någon [“walk all over someone”] when you talk to them. You always speak “just the right amount” in a considerate manner, in order to give everyone a chance to speak. When making a decision, consideration is given to the importance of equality. Therefore, a decision is not made until consensus has been reached.
Most organisations in Sweden are hierarchically very flat, and the lack of hierarchy is prominent when working with a Swedish company. Most Swedes do not care about what title you possess, what age you are, or your gender; what matters is knowledge, skills and performance. Hence, successful leadership in Sweden does not involve a dominant nature, but instead the role of a leader is that of a coach, mentor, consensus-seeker, and these characteristics should be implemented in a non-authoritative manner.
By now, the Swedish culture might seem to have a collectivistic nature, but do not be misguided: Swedes are highly individualistic. Nevertheless, Swedish individualism is different from that in the US, where people are encouraged at a young age to be competitive and engage in debates. In Sweden, individualism instead refers to being free to do, be who you want to be and do what you want, though the latter is done with consideration of others. The egalitarian forces mitigate the individualistic nature where high level of competition can offset the balance of the Jantelagen principle. This is also reflected in the workplace where Swedish employees are not highly competitive and believe working together is the best way to reach your goal.
Although this article has yet to mention the words “working in teams”, the rationale that explains the underlying codes of conduct involved in working in teams with Swedes, provides in itself an instruction manual. Teamwork has a major part in how Swedes work and despite the presence of a “leader”, everyone in the team is considered equal. Each team member usually has a different speciality and is responsible for their own work. The work is carried out without the supervision of a manager and each team member is, as a minimum, expected to present adequate performance at a certain deadline.
Henry Mintzberg, a renowned researcher and professor within the field of management studies, explains that structures within organizations define the type outcome that is to be expected. Looking at the characteristics that define how Swedes work in teams, they are according to Mintzberg preferable in industries that are complex, require a high level of professional skills and/or where innovation and adaptation are crucial. With this in mind, it is not surprising that a small country like Sweden is known for its many innovations.