Why a Management Style of Control Would Be Ineffective
in Swedish Organisations

                                                                          

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, August 2000

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

This paper looks briefly at why the national culture plays an important role in determining an effective style of management, and the question focuses on why a management style of control would be ineffective in Swedish organisations. Many studies have revealed that a practice of management control in Swedish organisation tends to go against the values and norm of the Swedish national culture. As shall be shown, these norms and values are deeply rooted in the Swedes mentality and consciousness so that almost any management system based on control and power over the employees is destined to fail.

 

KEYWORDS:

Culture, Management, Control, Sweden, Organisation

 

FULL TEXT:

In 1916 the French industrialist Henri Fayol (1841-1925) published the first complete theory of management, General and Industrial management, and introduced the concept of control as one out of five necessary functions of management. The issue for Fayol and his contemporaries was not to what degree a manager should exercise control towards his employees (if at all), but a mere understanding that for an organisation to become successful in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, a management system of control, authority and hierarchy should exist and be taught. This notion, also developed by Max Weber with his theoretical model of the ‘perfect firm’, built on rationality and impersonality, inspired theorists for decades.

The words and deeds by many of these early writers of management are still very much alive in contemporary management theory, but the language has changed in many ways. Instead of emphasising what managers should do to be effective, other issues such as culture, commitment, human values, and employee participation have recently become the buzzwords of the management literature, and shed a different light on the role and style of an effective manager. Although some writers still adhere to a utopian belief that there is a general ‘best practice’ management theory, most would agree that modern employment relationship is a complex one, and that managers must consider a variety of factors if they are to become effective managers. Xiaolei (1997), for example, mentions institutional factors and national business systems, competitive advantage of a nation, organisational demography and the national culture as some highly determining factors for European Human Resources Management.

The impact of the national culture was studied by Geert Hofstede in 1980, and showed that values of employees differed more or less significantly across national borders. According to Sweeney & Hardaker (1995), these cultural differences influence and restrict the ability and willingness of management to operationalise certain organisational theories and management practices. Hofstede’s findings, and other similar studies, are of special importance today as more and more national companies enter the international market and need to consider the impact of the host country’s culture on its operations.

This paper looks briefly at one example in which the national culture plays an important role in determining an effective style of management. The country discussed is Sweden, and the question focuses on why a management style of control would be ineffective in Swedish organisations. The reason for choosing Sweden as the case of study is not only due to the fact that the author of this paper is Swedish, but also because many studies have revealed that a practice of management control in Swedish organisation tends to go against the values and norm of the Swedish national culture. As shall be shown, these norms and values are deeply rooted in the Swedes mentality and consciousness so that almost any management system based on control and power over the employees is destined to fail.

Hofstede’s research, for example, shows that the Swedish national culture ranked low in “power distance” - the dimension of national culture that determines to what degree hierarchical authority and autocratic leadership is tolerated and respected (Hofstede, 1998). These findings have been confirmed by Laurent [1983], who argued that Swedish managers expressed little reluctance in bypassing the hierarchical line, whilst, for example, Italian managers believed it was a serious offense not to adhere to the hierarchical rules of authority in organisations (Bigoness, 1996, p.740). Similarly, another study showed that the Swedes favoured a style of management that involved all relevant parties irrespective of organisational position (Hill, 1998), and Gibson (1995, p.263) reveals that in Sweden there is a common belief that involvement with organisation is moral, and that inequality in society should be minimised so that superiors are “people like me” and should be accessible to employees.

Other studies look at other aspects of the Swedish national culture, but in general it can be asserted that the Swedes tend not to view management control as a favorable management practice, and if this is the case, it can also be concluded that it would not be an effective management style in Swedish organisations as managers would get nowhere in trying to control a workforce that inherently resists any form of strict control.

There are of course exceptions, and one should be careful with stating that for all organisations, a management style of control would be ineffective. As every individual is different and non-replicable, so too are organisations not comparable to one another. It seems, however, that it would be justifiable to assert that Swedes value participation, teamwork and joint decision-making, rather than relying upon a manager with higher status to make shop-floor decisions. Evidence of this can be seen in large Swedish organisations, such as Ericsson, Volvo and Saab-Scania. Volvo, for example, was one of the first organisations in the world to develop a socio-technical view of organisation, where responsibilities were extended to each single individual and where results were expected to come about through common efforts of all employees (Gustavsson, 1995).

These various findings may enable us to confirm that management control is not an effective management practice in Sweden, but it is also important to look deeper into the Swedish culture and ask why it has developed this way. Gustavsson (1995) even talks about a special ‘Swedish management style’, which is not comparable to any other styles. As an example, he quotes a Swedish girl working for IKEA in Canada:

Most people here have no idea what IKEA stands for. You’ve got to be Swedish to understand that. Our manager… oh yes, he has been to Sweden and all that, but he is someone who tries to be ‘IKEA’ - it’s funny how he runs around trying to act as if he was a Swede.

Culture affects the way in which people think, make decisions and ultimately the way in which they perceive, feel and act towards opportunities and threats presented by the internal environment (Sweeney & Hardaker, 1995). Hence, it is deeply rooted in a nation’s self-consciousness. For the Swedes, the culture could be summarised in an untranslatable Swedish word; lagom. Lagom refers to an undefined state between extremes, like “not too much, not too little”, or “just right”, but these translations do not fully capture the true meaning of the word. As argued by Gustavsson (1995), the lagom mentality can be seen as the trait which gives the Swedish society its characteristic stability, and yet openness to influences from outside. It explains a low score on “uncertainty avoidance” in Hofstede’s study, defined in the notion that each day is taken as it comes, and deviation from the ‘normal’ is not considered threatening - rather, great tolerance is shown. Lagom has also a repressive effect in that you are not supposed to be too good, or too rich. Thus, Sweden does not have an extreme income distribution, just a lagom spectra between the poorest and the richest. This connection is also noted by Xiaolei (1997) and Gibson (1995, p.263), and the mentality behind has been formulated into the so-called Jantelag, stating that “do not believe you are important” - a typical Swedish attitude, opposite the Americans’ strive for success and fame.

Hence, Gustavsson (1995) argues that it would not be appropriate for a manager to set his or her importance higher than those that they are leaders for, and maybe this is the most prominent reason to why a management style of control would not be effective in Swedish organisations. People are believed to have equal rights and be equally important, and no one is allowed to stand out. Except from in the field of sports, a successful Swede is one that does not achieve wealth or fame. Therefore, Swedish leaders will emphasise interaction facilitation, supportive behaviour, personnel development, and leadership styles at the non-directive end of the continuum (Gibson 1995, p.264) - that is, not management control.

 

Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.

 

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