SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

WORKING IN SWEDEN

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

The Local's Paul O'Mahony interviewed Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg, lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics and researcher at the Center for Responsible Leadership about the Swedish style of leadership.

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?
Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg is a researcher and teacher at Stockholm School of Economics. Photo: Private

Does Sweden have a distinctive management style?

The Swedish style of leadership is often said to be characterised by so-called flat hierarchies, where everyone is able to – and expected to – contribute their ideas and input to tasks, regardless of whether they are in a leadership role or not.

Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg told The Local that there are a number of different aspects which can influence management style, although Sweden does have a distinct style.

“I think that there’s definitely an idea that there is a specific Swedish or Scandinavian management style,” she said. “But I think from a research perspective, it’s much more complex, because we tend to generalise or stereotype.”

“It’s got a lot to do with the company culture and the culture of the country,” Karlberg said, “There’s definitely an idea of Scandinavian leadership, I think we have a common idea of what that is, but then, is it actually practiced everywhere in Scandinavia or in Sweden? That’s another issue.”

“In many of our organisations we talk about Scandinavian leadership where the leadership is very international, it’s a mix of different people from different cultures.”

Sweden is a very individualist society, which is also reflected in Swedish business.

“I think the core of what we talk about when we talk about Swedish leadership is the fact that leaders and managers also call on co-workers to take ownership on the task and individualism comes into business,” Karlberg said.

“It’s even expected, and co-workers take that ownership, and they engage and they take responsibility for the outcome and the result. So it’s the total opposite of micro-management in that sense.”

This culture of ownership and engagement also applies to managers, Karlberg explained.

“To generalise, in a Swedish setting, if there’s a meeting with the boss, the co-workers will expect to be listened to, and to be involved in a conversation and give their opinion on things. And that’s also a way to motivate people, in a Swedish sense.”

READ ALSO:

Can lead to cultural clashes

This expectation in Swedish workplaces can lead to clashes if employees from other countries are used to a different system, Karlberg said.

“In another culture, say Finland, for example – I’m just generalising – you go to a meeting with your boss and you expect the boss to motivate you and to tell you what to do. So if you had a Finnish manager in a Swedish context, Swedish co-workers would probably feel neglected or frustrated for not being involved. ‘No-one asked my opinion, I want to share my opinion, my opinion matters'”.

This can also happen in situations where a Swedish manager is managing a group of employees from a different culture or country.

“A Finnish crowd with a Swedish manager might be very frustrated if the manager just asks questions and doesn’t seem to have a direction of their own. There’s just different expectations”.

However, there is also a collective aspect to Swedish workplaces, which foreigners working in the country often pick up on.

“When I work with international crowds, they tend to notice that Swedish co-workers and managers are very collective, they want to have consensus, they have to discuss everything, and it takes forever and it can be very frustrating.”

Swedish co-workers aren’t afraid to speak up though, if they feel that the decision their manager is making is wrong.

“But there are a lot of behaviours where Swedish co-workers will not accept a decision. For example, if they feel that the idea that their manager is bringing is wrong, it will actually be their duty to speak up, not in a confrontational way, but to say ‘Hmm, you know, this idea about doing it this way, it’s probably not a good idea.'”

“And non-Swedish managers might not always appreciate that kind of reaction. And if it continues, and the manager says that this is the way we’re gonna do it, the typical Swedish coworker will insist that this is the best way, and then there is a clash – again, they expect to be listened to and taken into consideration.”

How do you know when a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace?

This need to feel informed and included in decision-making can in some cases make it difficult to understand at exactly what point a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace.

“It’s a different process,” Karlberg said. “It often involves a calculated plan for taking the time to introduce the decision, discuss it, and make people feel that they have been informed.”

This aspect of the Swedish workplace culture caused issues during the pandemic, when many employees began to work from home.

“Decisions are taken in a much more informal way, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when something was decided. And we also saw that during the pandemic, that the typical Swedish organisation – which is very non-hierarchical – suffered a lot, because a lot of leadership is practiced in an informal work environment.”

“So when people were taken away from that environment – because suddenly they were working from home – it was sort of, you know, ‘how do we practice leadership now?’, whereas in an organisation with a much clearer hierarchy, it was never an issue where decisions were made or how leadership was practiced, because it was done in a different way.”

“And in the more informal, flatter organisations, we had to find a different way to do that, to translate into the virtual room.”

Despite this, Karlberg does believe that Sweden’s leadership style is effective.

“I would say that it is, yes. We stand out pretty well as a nation when it comes to different types of national measurements of competitiveness. We score quite high on that. Of course, there’s also a drawback, if people don’t want to take that responsibility and ownership, because then it’s not typical that the manager would step up and change the leadership style. So it depends on whether you actually share the same expectation.”

Where does the Swedish leadership style come from?

Sweden’s collaborative leadership style is perhaps a product of Sweden’s history, Karlberg said.

“We have always been a small country, very dependent on export. And that means that we had to adapt to the rest of the world and to other markets, but also having to collaborate – we’re too small to quarrel or fight.”

“This has been a way to bring people together in the same direction – it’s a little bit like how we work with the unions with much more of a collaborative focus instead of being confrontative, because it’s simply not rational for a small country like us.”

There’s also a strong tradition of independence in Sweden, Karlberg explained.

“There’s a genuine tradition of independence in the sense of mutual respect. And of course, a lot happened during the 20th century with the development of equality and the whole idea of individualist thinking. Where we’re individualistic with regard to family, with regard to gender, with regard to our roles in society.”

“I think that plays a part as well, with equality and also that everyone matters in that sense.”

You can hear Paul O’Mahony’s interview with Karlberg in our Sweden in Focus podcast where we discuss all aspects of life in Sweden and shed light on the latest Swedish news. Listen and subscribe.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

CULTURE

‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/imagebank.sweden.se

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Footwear

Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden

SHOW COMMENTS