The Swedes and the Brits view one another with a great deal of fondness and mutual affection. There is relatable politeness and respect in the way we carry ourselves, a fascination and high regard for our respective cultures. But what do the Brits really think of “Jantelagen” and classic Swedish business meeting consensus? How well do Swedes acclimatise to the British working environment, and above all, what are the biggest misconceptions of Swedish and British business cultures? Meet Benjamin Webb, Managing Director at Deliberate PR, who assists Nordic start-ups and more mature companies in acclimatising, expanding, and thriving in the UK.
With only 900 miles between their countries, Swedes and Brits can appear to be cut from the same cloth. It is easy to assume that we know it all after simply scratching the surface of stereotypical ideas and norms. From picturesque British TV murder mysteries, the Swedes have learned that there is always a good time for tea or a pint at the local pub. The Brits, on the other hand, perhaps thinks of ABBA, IKEA and the occasional “surströmming”. However, when doing business in a foreign country, there are often more things to consider as you step outside your own culture. Without proper preparation or planning, you might simply get a little lost in the “culture shock”, which can happen to all of us.
“I think that for the past ten years, the British interest and affection for Swedish culture has become crystallised, codified and has developed. Meaning that, historically speaking, the British have always viewed the Swedes with interest and with respect, but it is over the past decade that being Swedish or working for a company with a clearly defined Swedish identity and behaviour or mission has become a virtue,” says Benjamin Webb, Managing Director at Deliberate PR. He adds that the Swedes have a corresponding interest and respect for the Brits.
Englishness, Britishness - what it means
Being British is something that has been analysed and fine-combed in literature and media, as the culture has been, and remains influential and unique in many ways. Benjamin argues that British business culture is modern, progressive and opportunistic, but is still anchored and linked to a series of traditions and traditional modes of behaviour. “It would be incorrect to say that British business culture is old-fashioned. But I think the interesting thing about British business culture is that it has this precedent. However forward-facing a British company can be in terms of its behaviour and what it does, it is still very much anchored in its history. And I think British business culture can appear to an outsider to be peculiarly traditional, in some respects, and very modern and thrusting in others.”
Correlation, contrast and finding equilibrium
According to Benjamin, Swedish and British business cultures go well together because we are not put on a collision course by our differences. Not that there aren't any differences, but rather that the existing ones boost and constructively complement each other. The keywords are hierarchy and decision-making, and this is where it gets a little tricky. “The profound differences lie in the British addiction to hierarchy. It is what we do, and it is what we thrive on. In British organisations, when they grow and develop, they will very often retrofit hierarchical structures, which I would argue based upon my own experience, are an enemy to innovation and to getting things done at the pace that stuff needs to be done”.
"I think a lot of Swedes arrive in London assuming much as they might in Sweden, that their good idea is going to get them an audience with a CEO or a senior person."
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the typical flat Swedish organisation that allows people to interact more naturally across the pecking order. This in turn promotes innovation, a climate that encourages an exchange of ideas and agility for immediate response or action. Benjamin continues: “British companies get bogged down in planning, and people whose job it is to plan, sharing their value by planning the planning, and you have gatekeepers for gatekeepers.” This distinctive difference, potentially mirrored from the UK social and class systems, defines the UK to this day with its love for hierarchy. Compared to Swedish companies, Brits are not as willing to have discussions across the business. “The idea of somebody at a junior level feeling confident enough to reach out to the owner of a business ten levels of hierarchy above themselves with a good idea – in Britain, if somebody did that, you’d probably think they are chancing their arm, and it is not really their place. Their managers would resent them for doing it.”
The most common pitfalls
“I think a lot of Swedes arrive in London assuming much as they might in Sweden, that their good idea is going to get them an audience with a CEO or a senior person. Then they are very surprised when the various hierarchy and the gatekeepers kick in.” A typical Scandinavian meritocratic mindset is ‘a good idea will get traction and carry you into the meeting room’, which is not necessarily the case in the UK. “One of the biggest surprises is the process of persuading potential partners or clients to cooperate and even get into the meetings with the decision-makers,” Benjamin says and adds: “When you do get a meeting, the British response is one of studied politeness. We, much like the Swedes, actually do not much enjoy confrontation. But negotiation is certainly a mainstay of business culture, so things can take time.” The Swede will leave the meeting thinking it went well, but as time passes by without a proper reply, the not so obvious becomes clear: the idea was not good enough.
The famous (or perhaps infamous) decision-making consensus that is natural to most Swedes can be a false friend in the UK, where the decision-making process is radically different. Although the consensus may be symbolic in Sweden, the flipside is the need to go through the motions of consensus-based decision making, which can be an enemy to getting things done and frustrating for a non-Swede. “You can probably get a decision reached quicker by a British company because you’re talking to one person at the top of the pyramid. Then again, from a Swedish company, you know you are going to get more than a polite ‘we’ll get back to you’.”
A challenge with Nordic companies is their will to get it absolutely right when entering a market, perhaps related to the ghost of decision-making consensus or a stroke of meritorious perfectionism. Unlike US or UK businesses who may still be building the plane as it is taking off, Nordic counterparts fixate on developing the product until completely satisfied, as good as it possibly can be, but risk missing the take-off. “Even though the Swedes have the better product, they are late to market. And then they find that they have actually missed their window.”
"You can probably, get a decision reached quicker by a British company because you’re talking to one person at the top of the pyramid."
The fortune favours the bold, or?
“Another British fascination when it comes to the Swedes is Jantelagen, something the British media has expressed its interest in from time to time. This magical and peculiar Swedish social code which seems to define what you do.” Benjamin continues, “The problem with Jantelagen is that very talented, brilliant Swedes can find themselves in a situation where they have to sell themselves, and it doesn’t come naturally. I would argue it is not a bad thing to be modest; it isn’t bad to be polite, but when you are in a competitive marketplace, you are up against people who are not afraid to say that they can fix the problem. I love the Swedes because they are not pushy, exaggerating characters who are all talk and no substance. But I am not sure it favours the modest Jantelagen person.”
On workplace traditions, Swedes take the prize when it comes to special days and holidays, bringing joviality into the workplace, perhaps more so than the Brits. “The Swedish affection for holiday, and the ring-fencing of holiday and the incredible significance of summer holidays and retreating to your summer houses, I believe, most British people find deeply confusing.” As the summer months in Sweden equals at least four weeks of consistent holiday, everyone else carries on working. “It is startling, and I say this with love and affection, how completely out of step Sweden is with the rest of the world. In the past, I have had Swedish clients who say, ‘well, it is summer, so no one is working. Let’s put the contract on hold for a couple of months and come back.’ It is a defining characteristic.” Tying into this is the work-life balance and paternity leave. “We are fascinated by it, and we respect it. But it is not really replicated in the UK, in a way that would be anywhere close to matching Sweden.”