Consensus..? Are Swedes really that normal?

Posted on October 14, 2010. Filed under: Consensus |

”I mean, seriously, how can you in Sweden afford to have all these meetings? Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”

The Finish Marketing Director I met a couple of years ago talked eagerly while chewing his food on our lunch break together. He was discussing the cultural differences between Swedish and Finnish leadership and also how tired he and his colleagues were of the Swedish meeting culture.

“You have to understand that this is business and not pleasure, this is business not some democracy hocus pocus with consensus written all over it.” He was a giant with sharp features and a nose that went deep into his glass of milk. Between chasing the peas on his plate he was very convincing in his critics and made me wonder if he was right? Are we really that normal in Sweden? And which one of us invented consensus?

Consensus has its origin in a Latin word meaning literally to feel together. It is used to describe both general agreement and the process of getting to such agreement.

“As soon as you have a topic or an issue you are dwelling upon the first thought that springs to your minds is “Let’s have a meeting.” His hands were huge as he waved them while agitating and making his point. The Director’s comments reminded me of a book I read with Colin Moon, an Englishman who has lived in Sweden for many years and made some interesting (read; hilariously funny) observations about how we Swedes are perceived by others. Colin Moon has written the following:

“To communicate effectively cross-culturally the first thing you need to realise is that someone somewhere in the world probably sees you as really quite strange. That may be difficult for some Swedes to swallow. How could anybody in their right mind consider normal, efficient, level-headed Swedes as strange?

Of course we are normal!
After all, the Swedish starting point is ‘we are normal’. Indeed, Swedes have a tendency to think they are a little more normal than others. They believe they are quite sensible, and logical. They are often unaware that the rest of us, their international business partners, may have a different opinion. We think they are amusing, entertaining and, at times, really quite odd.

Take business life for example. Swedes attend meetings. Lots of them. Three things in Sweden are certain:
death, taxes and more meetings.

Mötet gick bra
When Swedes say ‘Mötet gick bra’ (the meeting went well) what exactly do they mean? There were heated discussions? The meeting went on for ages? The incredible number of decisions that were taken? I doubt it.

Swedish meetings are short but many. They are arranged to give Bengan, Maggan, and Lasse a chance to say what they think. If you want to reach a decision then you’ll have to arrange another meeting because in the meantime Bengan, Maggan and Lasse have to go back to the office and ask Ninni, Kicki and Titti (yes, there are girls of that name) what they think.

This, in Swedish, is called the förankringsprocess. If Swedes mention the word ‘process’ then it’s better not be in a hurry. There’s a process for everything. This one means getting everybody involved in everything. Everyone voices an opinion and everyone listens. Then they compromise. The word compromise is music to a Swede’s ears. Everybody gets something. Not too much and not too little. Nobody wins and nobody loses. They may agree to disagree but what they will agree on is the exact time and date of the next meeting.

Swedes stick to the agenda. They tick off each point after everybody has taken turns discussing it. They have to move quickly through the agenda as they all have another meeting planned ten minutes after this one has finished. They intensely dislike the last point on the agenda which is övriga frågor, ‘any other business’. No self-respecting Swede wants to be guilty of causing the meeting to run over time. There is a distinct danger that ‘any other business’ could drag on and flexibility is not a Swedish strong point.

Decision time
Swedes rarely say yes or no. This means that instead of saying ja or nej they say nja which means ‘yes-but-no-but-yes-but’. You see, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can lead to conflict so Swedes avoid these words and replace them with ‘it depends’, ‘maybe’ and ‘I’ll see what I can do’.

However, fair’s fair – when they’re at work they’re very effective. But not before 8.30 as they have flexi-time, and not after 4 pm, thank you, as they have to pick up the kids from play school, and not after 2 pm on Fridays, if you don’t mind, and preferably not between 1 May and 10 August.

So, there you are Swedes. A short, sharp lesson in how to realise that you are not quite as normal as you think you are.

And thank goodness for that.”

Well, Colin, I know consensus decision-making is criticized for being time consuming however… once a decision has been reached it can be acted on more quickly than a decision handed down. American businessmen complained that in negotiations with a Japanese company, they had to discuss the idea with everyone even the janitor, yet once a decision was made the Americans found the Japanese were able to act much quicker because everyone was on board, while the Americans had to struggle with internal opposition, enourmously time consuming…

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps so is normality? What if we all are normally unnormal and that is the beauty of it? Imagine a whole world where we can all agree on that – a mega world consensus decision 🙂

 Since it is Friday and after 2 pm I wish you a nice weekend,


“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Albert Einstein


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