Swedish culture is generally egalitarian and the lack of hierarchy in business is valued by companies and employees alike. Although individual responsibility is important, it is just one aspect of the team effort. Even if final responsibility rests with a senior manager, employees at every level are usually consulted within a lengthy decision-making process. This consensus approach is based on trust and mutual respect within the workplace and people are encouraged to put forward their opinions so every scenario can be analysed before final strategies are agreed
With such a flat organisational structure, the role of a manager is to harness the talents of their employees. As such, expect managers to regularly invite feedback from their team and delegate tasks to the people they feel are best placed to develop or implement ideas. Managers often take a back seat in discussions, intervening when they wish to support a good idea or refocus attention on a new topic. Most prefer to praise and celebrate the accomplishments of the group rather than those of individuals.
Titles and status are not considered particularly important in Sweden, so business people tend to communicate on first-name terms relatively quickly. If in doubt you may wish to keep it formal to begin with, but usually you’ll find the informal approach more effective.
Day-to-day attire for workers in Sweden is often business casual, so don’t be surprised to see jeans and trainers in the office. Very few companies operate strict dress codes, but it is generally considered good form to be conservative and not too showy in your work attire. For business meetings with new contacts you may wish to dress more formally, but try to avoid appearing flashy.
In Sweden, you should greet both men and women with a firm, confident handshake. Swedish people are typically a little more reserved with their body language than people from central or southern Europe, so be respectful of personal space and try to keep hand gestures to a minimum. Maintaining eye contact will help you engage with people.
Adherence to schedules is important in Sweden, so punctuality is a must to do business there. People work hard to ensure that they fit all their work into the schedule allowed, so anyone who wastes time quickly loses the respect of their contacts. Rather than being a sign of dedication, working late can sometimes be taken as an indicator of poor time management or lack of organisation, so always try to hit your deadlines within working hours. If you can’t avoid being late for a meeting or deadline, always call to apologise.
Because of the need for consensus, meetings are commonplace in Swedish business culture and it can take many rounds of discussion to reach a decision. However, meetings can be fairly brief – small talk is usually dispensed with and discussions will run to the allocated timeslot, whether this results in a positive conclusion or not. Negotiations will be based around discussions of solid facts followed by a degree of compromise, so make sure you stick to the truth and remain calm during negotiations as emotional outbursts can be interpreted as a weakness. Don’t worry if the room falls silent at some points – this is normal in Swedish business dealings and you will find that people appreciate the chance to think more than any attempts to break the silence.
One concept that newcomers to Sweden often struggle to understand is the idea of ‘lagom’. Literally translated, it means ‘moderate’ or ‘just right’, but in business terms, it’s a concept that relates to value added. In effect, ‘lagom’ means to focus on doing the things that are necessary well – not too little, but not too much either. Where ‘going above and beyond’ might be seen as a positive thing in some cultures, in Sweden knowing when to stop and not waste resources is just as important.
Although Swedish is the dominant first language, the majority of people speak very good English too – albeit often with an American accent or influence. Some larger companies in Sweden recognise English as their business language, but even if you are dealing with companies that don’t, it is fairly unusual for native English speakers to require translation.