Why Swedish organizational culture is still very hierarchal

28 12 2011

This insight has recently got very obvious for me.

Swedish management seems to be quite famous, both inside and outside our national borders, for being ”softer”, ”open”, ”inclusive” or less hierarchal than many other countries. This is true when it comes to law and sometimes organizational structure. We don’t get fired for going to our boss telling them what we think. We might get an evil eye or two, but we don’t get fired, which is a huge different from many other cultures.

The law makes it very hard to fire someone, you really need to have very strong motivation.

Jan Carlzon who got Swedish leadership style famous by introducing the ”flat organization” in the 80’s I believe made a huge difference in his organizations, where transformational leadership was encouraged, teached and spread, where co-workers were supposed to take an active part in the development of the company. How much impact this style had in the 80’s I cannot tell, all I know is that today, in the 2010’s it seems not very common to include co-workers in the actual running and development of business. It’s common with ”co-worker-feedback-meetings” where ordinary employees are allowed to ask questions (often in a big room) and give feedback to managers proposals. And with one or two yearly kickoffs where management try to collect input on goals and vision from their employees. But to actually take an active and trusted part in developing the organization seems less common. I do see signs of change, and the change might go very quick very soon, if we allow us.

For all I know both managers and co-workers in most Swedish organizations have a very very strong culture of pushing all decisions to the one titled ”manager”, it’s managers deciding which projects are having a ”go”, it’s all managers in steering groups (why?? Is anyone actually still believing in that the manager has the most current and relevant information to make good decisions?), the teams always waiting for the manager to tell them they’re allowed to be more agile, get the stuff they need etc. In steering document I read it’s said that the mangers are making the important decisions. Where did the ”flat” structure go?

In the organizational schemes I see there’s always a manager on top of each box, solely responsible for the boxes success or failure. In steering documents it is said the manager(s) are responsible for project success or failure. What happened to the co-workers responsibility? Why aren’t the teams or groups of workers included in organizational charts?

Also, which myself is suddenly very aware of, are we – the co-workers behaving as expected. We never question the manager-run boxes, we go, without even reflecting about it, to the manager for each little decision that needs to be made.  Since we won’t get fired for going to the boss and tell them what we think, it IS very strange we don’t go to them with other questions than ”signing this decision” more often. We are so scared of our feudal leaders, we don’t dare to call them up in the phone and tell them we think the company should do investment A or withdraw investment B.

Someone told me, I think it was Diana Larsen or Esther Derby, that often the boss, the big manager, the CIO, CFO, whatever, actually WANTS the co-worker to knock on the door and ask for a chat. The thing is we’re so into this hierarchal mindset that we’ve never actually think it could be so easy. The separation of classes doesn’t exist anymore in Sweden (though segregation does) but we still act as if it was so, even though you and the boss went to the same school, or have your kids at the same kindergarten or are both members of  the local climbing club.

It’s all about our mindset. We gaze up at the top wondering why they won’t let us do the business. We’ve never even asked for it, and when we get promoted to managers ourselves we forget the intrinsic power we automatically get by title and just go ahead in our meetings with other managers wondering why the organization and business is so slow.

Each day businesses need to make many many decisions. To limit the power of the organization to the manager bottle necks with consequences of slowing down business isn’t this against all business reason and wisdom?

To not make use of the current knowledge, experience and information residing in co-workers to make well grounded decisions in the right time without delay, isn’t this a terrible waste ?

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2 responses

28 12 2011
Vasco Duarte

i think you are on to something when you refer to the ‘self-reenforced’ hierarchical deference. Indeed self-fulfilling profecies do exist (we don’t talk to the boss because we tnink our ideas will be dismissed, which leads to our ideas not even being considered).
However that street goes both ways. Many managers never actually have an open debate of ideas with their reports because they feel threatened by the idea that their ideas would not be embraced.
I agree that we need a better organizational paradigm in our organizations(different than the pyramids we live in today). But I also do think tnat management has a role to play in any organization. Co-worker management is a possible setup for some (even perhaps most) management tasks today, the question is which are not suited to that setup? Can we live without those? Can we replace those with a different set of management tasks that achieves our objectives?
And what does an alternative to ‘management’ look like? (in case we want to explore that question as well…)
Management and organizations are in for a big change, no doubt. We need to start creating those options now…

28 12 2011
Ulrika Park

Thanks for comment, the self fulfilling profecy about management is what really have struck me these days.

I believe we need leaders – to encourage development, to help us focus, to share knowledge and visions. Not so sure about all these managers supposed to know everything about everything. Just the title ”manager” (I mean the role ”chef” in Swedish – which is not the same in Swedish as the one cooking lovely food ;-)) has too many associations and traditions, I think its very hard to loose its annotations even by being a manager who’s very listening, encouraging self-organizing loving. As soon as you start call yourself a ”manager” people will turn to you, and wait for you to give all the answers and decisions either you like it or not. At least that’s what I’ve mainly seen out there.

I like our tweet dialogue about what would happen if we start calling all co-workers ”co-managers” in stead, then maybe the associations with the word manager would change 🙂

To be continued: What is the alternative..

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