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Understanding the Finns: 100 years of independence (II)

Friday January 12th, 2018

This is the second in a series of 3 blogs on Finland and it’s (business) culture.

Finland is a modern welfare state in north-east Europe, and apart from Iceland the most northerly country of Europe. The Bill of Independence passed the Parliament in December 1917, and this 100-year anniversary of independence make me spend 3 blogs on Finland and it’s culture. And while observation on any country culture are interesting, Finland especially is fascinating to me. The behaviors of Finnish participants in workshops and trainings are often frowned at and trigger a mild smile (emphasized by the Finns themselves using their humor to magnify their typical characteristics out of proportion). At the same time these behaviors are frequently misunderstood. As argued in my last blog, the silence that is so characteristic for conversations in Finland is not a sign of introversion or withdrawal. It is a sign of taking deliberate time to think and not wanting to fill the air with superficial or vague talk. And interpreting the laid-back attitude of the Finns as ’not interested’ or ‘indifferent’ is a wrong interpretation: when fully engaged and committed, the Finns value listening to other’s arguments before speaking up themselves.

This blog deals with another trait of the Finnish culture, less well known to foreigners: their originality and creativity. In the third blog in this series we will focus on their determination and ‘sisu’.

In business settings, Finns often get noticed once they speak up. First of all, any Finn will acknowledge with a smile that speaking up in itself is already worth mentioning (they are quite reflective and have good self-knowledge). But also because their observations are short and concisely formulated, often making their point with creative choices of words and putting emphasis on the key point they want you to hear. They do this by slowing down when speaking and articulating very clearly, They often use cold, refined humor to underline their point. This can come across to outsiders as cynical or sarcastic,  often leading your attention away from the content as you are distracted by their style of delivering the message. I have learned it pays to decide upfront not to focus on style, and just coldly analyze the facts and content of their message.

Often you will find that their point of view is creative and original. The Finns take pride in analyzing the facts and figures of a situation, drawing a conclusion from this (they are critical thinkers) and express their conclusion shortly as ‘fact’. They may say, for example: “I think you missed the mark. We should invest now, tomorrow is quite late”. This is a typical sentence a Finn could use. “Quite late” could come across as understatement and sounds cynical in this context. Also, the sentence almost sounds too simplistic to be taken seriously. But when filtering out style and humor, you will find a person who has weighted the pro’s and con’s of investing now and later, and came to the conclusion it’s in the companies best interest to invest now, for 3 major reasons. When distracted by style, you take their statement and argue back that you don’t want to invest now. But this is a missed opportunity. Ask the Finn “Why do you think we should invest now?” and you will get the 3 reasons, crystal clear. The Finn will then enjoy a good discussion with you on the right moment to invest. At the same time he appreciates the invitation you gave him to speak up. He would have kept his wisdom to himself had he not been asked to elaborate.

Finns are creative thinkers. In international comparisons, this is often linked to the unique and well-known Finnish education system. Often cited is the statistic that Finland has the same amount of teachers as New York City, but far fewer students (other interesting facts about Finnish education: see here). The teacher’s profession in Finland is taken very seriously, with only 1 out of 10 applicants making it into the education system, and with pre-school or high school teachers being treated like academic professors in other countries. Their role in society is well-established and respected. One virtue of their education system is that actual class-time is lower compared to international averages, and the Finns place a lot of value on free time and play. By law, teachers must give students a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. Scientific research more and more points out that our brains learn by alternating cognitive instruction time and downtime where the unconscious brain starts to create new links, sees interdependencies overnight and comes to new insights in REM-sleep or in the meditative state that accompanies daytime naps. Without going into the specifics of brain functioning, it seems likely the Finnish education system – by allowing downtime and time to play – fosters creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Your task then to give the Finns airtime to share these insights.

Compare Finland to the US: free time and time for play are a scarcity there, as Americans put high value on productivity, making progress and getting fast results. A lack of play – and high pressure to learn quickly and be the best – leads to stress and anxiety. On the other side of the spectrum is Finland, where free time and time to play are valued. Stress levels are generally low in Finland, and a modest attitude fits the Finns better than a competitive attitude. For good reason both cultures are on opposite locations in the shown graph. The graph shows PISA test scores (exam results) of half a million students in 72 countries (colored dots), the countries located on the grid based on the competitiveness students display and the anxiety they experience in school tests. The Finnish high scores are obtained in a low competitive, stress-free environment, where in the US competition and stress come with lower test scores                                                                      (Source: The Economist, April 2017)

Creativity, entrepreneurial and innovative thinking often come forth out of societies where investments in academic research and R&D are high. Finland spends 3,3% of it’s GDP on academic research (in good company of other Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden), leaving the 2,7% of the US far behind (Source: Business Insider, March 2016). There is a trend that US kids do worse on math and science tests compared to many other western countries such as Finland, and that American universities graduate a smaller portion of science majors.

In international projects, the above forms important insight for the Finns themselves, who often have difficulty getting their ideas across. It helps them to realize their great ideas are at risk of not being heard by the company they work for. The challenge for them often is communication, and more precisely, it is speaking up timely and firmly. When discussing this with Finnish managers and challenging them to speak up earlier, they will often respond: “But everybody else is already busy doing all the talking. I will wait for my turn.” This however can take long, and your turn may never come if you wait in silence for a quiet moment. Claiming airtime in meetings and conversations is important, and easy to learn. Not by adopting loud and aggressive behaviors (“I do not want to become an American”, is what one Finnish manager once told me in response), but by labeling what you do. You ‘label’ your contribution in a conversation by saying: “I have an important observation to make.” or “I also want to share my opinion.” These sentences force others to pay attention to what you are going to say, and can still be brought up in a relaxed and non-aggressive way.

In international project teams it is important to speak about these differences in communication style. I’m not in favor of lengthy reflections and half-day soft-skill sessions; a short 5 minutes at the start or end of a call can be enough. Explain what you observe as the main difference in communication style, ask others if they have the same observation and ask what is needed such that all can contribute. “Guys, I have noticed the Belgians and Austrians do most of the talking in this meeting, while I’m sure you have great ideas as well. You’re naturally more reserved and silent, but we want to hear you as well. What do you need from us to make this happen?” Not only does this trigger the Finns to open up and contribute more actively and outspokenly, it also sends a clear feedback signal to the Belgian and Austrian talkers: “In all your enthusiasm, do not forget that there are others in the room or on the call who have things to contribute!”

Certainly at the start of brainstorm meetings or creative problem-solving sessions this is essential. The brainstorm technique that is so common to Americans and many others, is less natural for a Finn. Thinking out loud and sharing the first things that come to mind is not natural for her. The Finn will prefer to share one thought-through idea that she has carefully weighted with all pro’s and con’s, rather than bring in 10 untested ideas and ’see what flies’. Again here: discuss differences of style for a short 5 minutes prior to your next brainstorm session or project team meeting. And if your meetings are virtual because of different geographical locations of participants, this is even more important. The call where only 30% of the people contribute while the others switch off and engage in other activities is all to common. Great ideas and brilliant observations tend to stay within the brains of the creator, simply because teams didn’t make agreements about their communication styles.

Do you have similar observations? I’d love to hear them: put your reaction below or get in touch! The last blog in this series of 3 on the Finnish culture will appear in 10 days.

Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!  Happy independence!

PS:  I will be in Finland end of February, available for business meetings and workshops on cross-cultural awareness and personal leadership.


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