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The business culture of Sweden

Saturday November 03rd, 2018

Sweden is a big country in northwestern Europe with only 10 million inhabitants, 85% of them living in the big cities of Stockholm, Göteborg, Malmö, Uppsala, and Linköping. The population density is very low, as the land mass of Sweden is enormous. The distance one can travel from north to south is more than 1.500km, and in many areas of Sweden, you won’t find much else than forest, with millions of trees and many deer. Sweden is famous for its hospitality and quality of life, which is something that Scandinavians in general greatly appreciate. In contrast to most other countries, Swedes make a strict distinction between business and private life. They take pride in protecting their work-life balance and consequently enjoy a high average happiness level.

There are a few things we automatically associate Sweden with: IKEA, ABBA and the yearly Nobel prices are some examples. However, for many people, the knowledge about Sweden stops here. This is a pity, as many other fascinating things can be told about Sweden. For example, that 48% of the country’s energy consumption is based on renewable energy these days. Or that Spotify is a Swedish company. Or that the ‘fika’ is a very well known concept in Sweden: it is the coffee break that should never be skipped, and that comes with coffee, tea, small talk, gossip, and nice pastries.

The Swedish business culture – although in many aspects similar to other western European cultures – has some special characteristics that are good to know when doing business with the Swedes. This blog gives a summary of 5 cultural elements that are characteristic of the Swedes. The full article I have written about the Swedish business culture can be downloaded here. Feel free to spread!

 

Consensus: involving others is your job

 

Scandinavian companies – and Sweden is no exception – generally are built on a strong base of cooperation and full participation. And with all being equal, all opinions count. The Swedes do not look at ‘sho’ says it: it’s all about ‘what’ you say. And all these opinions need to be taken into account when making a decision. The boss is only the facilitator of the decision-making process. To foreigners from more hierarchical cultures, this can come across as indecisive and extremely inefficient. Swedes will only move forward once all opinions have been heard. Hurried processes or decision-making by force of positional power will not be appreciated, and foreigners who continue to rely on it will face fierce resistance.

 

Work: but don’t forget to live

 

The Swedes keep work and private life strictly separated and have a strong belief that (family) happiness is very important in life. They plan the hours in the office such that they can go home timely, to do all these other things that contribute to their happiness. The Swedes are used to this and will generally appreciate someone who is clear about their work-life priorities. But perception rules. The conscious choice the Swedish make, when they decide to prioritize personal matters over work, can easily be interpreted by outsiders as ‘laziness’ or avoidance of work responsibilities. It is not. On the contrary: Swedes work hard and preferably efficient.

 

Plan everything: think first, and only then speak and act

 

The Swedes generally come across as informal and relaxed. This can give the wrong impression: the relaxed attitude is too easily interpreted as a somewhat naive business culture where people do not fight for their interests but seek to maintain harmony. Eeking harmony they do, but behind the friendly mask there is usually a well-prepared person who knows exactly what she wants. She will fight for it – in a friendly but firm manner. The Swedes like careful meticulous planning. They believe the quality of work is higher when you work systematically and you plan carefully. Where the Swedes differ from other planning cultures is in how they deal with the rules once established. The Swedes usually take a pragmatic approach. There is flexibility in applying the rules, and when the rules become too static and hinder effectiveness, the Swedes continue their work, in spite of the rules. Planning requires one to think first, and then act. This mantra fits the Swedes more than anybody else. The prefer thinking over immediate action, and they do things “better right than quick”.

 

Innovate: think differently

 

The Swedes are tolerant by nature. People are free to express themselves and hold their own opinion. And although others may not agree, they will treat you with respect, even when your opinion is clearly different from the norm. The Swedes are open to new ideas although you don’t notice this immediately. Their reserved, task-focused style may give you the impression they are cautious and reserved. They combine this however with a pragmatic mindset and appreciation for new points-of-view and creativity. The Swedes deal very well with ambiguous situations, and their tolerance for what-is-different thrives well in an innovative environment.

 

Communicate: say it like it is

 

The communication style of the Swedes is anything but exuberant. The Swedes come across as reserved, stuffy, and even boring to some. But these are unfair qualifications: the Swedes have a desire to be clear. They take pride in communicating in such a way that there is no confusion about what they mean. Their communication is direct and low-context, and they spend minimal time to say what needs to be said. Sweden is a task-based culture, where the outward display of emotion is uncommon. It is important to differentiate between directness and bluntness. There is no intention at all to be blunt. The Swedes value directness for the sake of being clear and to-the-point, however, they avoid confrontation.

With these pieces of advice, working successfully with the Swedes should not be a problem. And if problems come up, remember that culture cannot be blamed. Regardless of culture, you always deal with human beings. An open mindset and open communication about eventual misunderstandings will clear the sky over Stockholm, Uppsala or Malmö when business discussions turn difficult.

In 2019 I plan two trips to Sweden to facilitate workshops and trainings on the business cultures of the world from a Swedish perspective. Reach out for more information and bookings!

Download here the full version of this article.

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