A dear friend of mine has landed a good job here in Stockholm. She is not Swedish, but from a southern European country, she speaks excellent English, good Swedish and she is nice and smart and fairly well integrated into Swedish society.
It’s been a long way to get here, but she is there now, where she aimed. It’s more than a year now since she landed a manager’s position, in an all-Swedish company. The right challenges, good money, pure gold for her CV.
Not the expected feedback
Still, life hurts. She tells me about the late evenings and early mornings spent on completing presentations that need to be submitted, and how they are received with an ‘ok’ or ‘thanks’ or nothing at all. She tells me about the improvements she wants to make in the company, and the silent reluctance these are met with.
She tells me of a recruitment process she is in charge of and that never seems to lead to a signature. About mediocre interns advancing within the organisation, Friday fika rotas (now gone virtual), meetings, meetings, meetings.
She is not alone, of course. You are not alone. Navigating a new workplace is a daunting experience, not made easier with added layers of confusion in the form of a new language and culture. After many years abroad, I moved back to Sweden in 2008, and although I’m a fully-fledged Swede now, taking long fika and summer breaks, it took me several years to adapt back to everything I had unlearnt.
I truly emphasise, and added, my friend is not alone; every week I hear stories similar to hers. At the same time, I’ve been here long enough to understand the system and human as I am, I can’t give the occasional piece of advice.
Is this really what you wanted?
As you may have guessed, my advice is usually met with scepticism. They are not compliant with the identity of the recipient. “That’s not me! I want to be true to myself! I know these things work, I’ve always done it this way!” Did I say I emphasise? I truly do.
But then once, I thought of something, and now I ask: “But is this really you, you, getting up at 5.30 to work three hours before officially showing up? Is that really what you wanted when you moved here?” Some charlatan psychology, perhaps, yes, but the answers are always the same: “No, of course not, it’s not me, I do it for others.”
And voilà! Here it is, the core of the poodle, in Swedish translation. We have all learnt these tricks, from the pre-school years, to act in ways that please others, in order to achieve our own goals and success. Our expressions of politeness, manners of speech, prioritisations, ways of interaction; we have all developed these to suit our social and professional context.
But what if that context changes? What if something of the greatest importance in one context has little significance in another?
That’s exactly what happened to my friend. She has always been a studious, conscientious, professional, strategic person. She has learnt what actions and decisions have proven successful. She has implemented these and seen how they paid off. And now they don’t.
Because she is in a new country with different values. She is banging her head against the wall, when, in fact, she would have more success in her Swedish career if she walked the other way, where there is no wall at all. She is spending energy on time on actions that are not worth the effort, and by that, there is less time and energy to spend on what would really pay off.
If you are an international professional in Sweden, take a moment to reflect on your work efforts, and how much they reflect the values and preferences of your context. And if you really want to impress your Swedish colleagues, this is your cheat sheet:
Show how well you manage your time by sticking to your plan and timetable, and by postponing meetings. Say no if your boss asks you to do something you don’t have the time for. You will appear responsible and good at time management.
Try to impress your colleagues by working more than your assigned hours. You will appear unstructured and with poor time management skills. Added, your Swedish colleagues may feel the pressure to work as much as you, something they may not be very keen on.
Set realistic goals and follow existing guidelines and routines. If you have ideas for change, plant them early and make sure everyone agrees on them before you bring them up in a formal setting.
Try to improve the organisation and the work processes, however bad they are. Although Swedes may not be reluctant to change, they are reluctant to what they see as dictatorial leadership and will implement only those changes they believe they have taken part in deciding upon.
Tell your colleagues that what they say is spännande, roligt and intressant although this may not be genuinely meant.
Bring up topics that you find personally interesting, as they may be considered too personal for the public setting of a Swedish workplace. Taboo topics include anything political or something that could make someone display their emotions.
With that, I certainly believe you, just like my friend, have plenty to bring to your organisation. Do be yourself, but don’t try to make a good impression playing a role that is not adapted for the Swedish context.
If you are keen to learn more about the context of your Swedish workplace, and if you allow for some self-promotion, I’m the co-author of Working in Sweden: The A–Z Guide, that we have recently revised to include more than 300 entries on everything related to Swedish work culture: Swedish work law, concepts, important dates, salary, etiquette, etc.