Swedish management: its research beginnings, characteristic traits and style

Cheryl Marie Cordeiro Mölle 2014

Field in Mölle, Sweden.
Text & Photo © CM Cordeiro 2014

The Swedish management concept made headlines in 2001, as only sports news can do, when the BBC news reported that Swedish soccer manager Sven Goran Eriksson took England to the top in the World Cup qualifying rounds using Swedish management ideology.

As a field of research, studies on Swedish management is relatively new, beginning in the 1980s with research in the area of Scandinavian management. A prominent piece of work in the field at that time was Skandinaviskt management i og uden for Skandinavien by Geert Hofstede.

And in 1985, Jan Carlzon’s success as CEO (1980 – 1993) of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) led to his book entitled Riv pyramiderna!, which mapped SAS’s winning management strategy under his leadership. His success and work gained much media attention and created a Scandinavian leadership ideal. Carlzon’s main idea was to lateralize hierarchies and decentralize decision-making within the organization, which empowered employees further out in the service line to serve customers better. With decentralization, employees were given the power to make decisions on the spot, without having to go to their managers to ask for decision approvals. And since they knew the customers better, Carlzon was convinced that the people ‘out there’ would fit best in making the right decisions regarding their work situations. The lateralization process had its problems and hiccups, one of which was the consequence of making middle managers feel rather redundant and had to be reassigned duties.

But Jan Carlzon nonetheless was the personification of “Scandinavian management”, which was simultaneously customer-oriented and anti-hierarchical. His work drew attention to a revolutionary concept that began to forge the path to the Scandinavian management style. For Carlzon, the leader of an organization was a listener, communicator and an educator that inspired people rather than make all decisions himself / herself.

Communication was also important in Scandinavian management for Carlzon, where he emphasized the importance of how every employee in the organization should understand the leader’s message. To this effect, messages should be as simple as possible and as straight forward as possible (a philosophy that Donald Trump also adheres to, mentioned in several of his books). Communication between levels within the organization was key.

Most comprehensive studies in Scandinavian management style and in particular, the Swedish management style, has been written in Nordic languages (Swedish and Danish for example). One of my favourite resource to turn to is Sten Jösson’s work entitled Goda Utsikter: Svenkst management i perspektiv (1995) where he interviewed 22 top Swedish management leaders in private organizations, arriving at a profile of Swedish management characteristics.

From his interviews, Jösson found Swedish management to be:

1. Informal
Imprecise and unclear or what he termed ‘informal’. Many Swedish leaders tend to say “See what you can do about it!” and not “Do this!” or “Do that!”. Personally, I would have thought that Swedes, having been brought up in such an anti-hierarchical culture and environment would feel comfortable with this but Jösson found that there were quite several Swedish employees out there who felt this method of leadership confusing and frustrating as they lacked clear instructions on their responsibilities.

Jösson’s study also reminded me of an experience I had when I had first arrived in Sweden. I was involved with helping to organize an international conference that the department was holding and all in the organizing team were called to a meeting to decide on responsibilities. As it happened, about twelve persons sat around at able, spoke about the conference for about an hour or so and when we left, I had no idea what I was supposed to do!

Coming from a more authoritarian background, from Singapore, I was very used to clear, precise instructions from leaders. So I remembered the feeling of frustration after that meeting for helping to organize a conference since I had to go back to the leaders of it to ask specifically – what is it that you’d like me to be in charge of?

2. Decentralised

As with Carlzon, Jösson found Swedish management to have decentralised decision-making where responsibility for decision-making is delegated away from the top management to persons directly involved in the project.

3. Consensus seeking

While Carlzon emphasised the importance of multi-levelled communication, Jösson’s findings highlighted that an important aspect of successful management is the ability to argue for one’s ideas. As a leader in an organization one needs to convince colleagues and employees to move in a single direction, in order to execute a unified vision of organizational strategy. This makes for lengthy discussions and what is deemed as “consensus seeking” in Swedish management.

There are pros and cons to consensus seeking and as my own interviews with Swedish leaders in Singapore revealed, Swedish leaders do like to seek consensus, but there are limits to how much feedback they wish to obtain too as one Swedish leader puts it, “Yes, and this is why you have this Swedish decision making, [it] is said to be more consensus oriented, more like the Japanese …[but] the Japanese are particularly disciplined, in Sweden you might still have some employees who refuse to follow the decision and that is of course something as a manager you can get fed up with.”

Still, I’ve come across other Swedes in my own interviews, who prefer consensus seeking since it speeds up implementation as another Swedish respondent said, “The reason why consensus is good is that it speeds up implementation usually because people understand why things should be done”.

4. Impartiality and objectivity

The last characteristic that I wish to highlight in this post from Jösson’s study is how he found Swedish leaders to be objective, facts oriented and the person who took the blame in the organization if a mistake was made further down the line. That ultimately, despite decentralized decision-making, the leader is still responsible for mistakes that others have done, is key in Swedish management in building trust within the organization, between employees and leaders of the organization.

This feeling of ‘taking the blame’ and being responsible for wrong decisions made is something that was referred to by another Swedish leader, “I will still have the responsibility if they make a big mistake, it’s still mine.”

To summarize this post, Swedish management studies as a field of research is relatively new with just about 30 over years in knowledge inquiries. In this time, the general findings point to that Swedish management can be characterized by decentralized decision-making, a flattening of the vertical hierarchy, empowerment to the employee in terms of more responsibilities, freedom to make decisions and encouraged initiative-taking and creativity amongst employees. In all of this, the Swedish leader is seen more as a mentor and advisor than one who dishes out instructions for doing things. But, s/he is still responsible for mistakes made within the organization.