Culture shock on the job

Bookmark and Share

Foreign bosses have a hard time adjusting to the unique Norwegian workplace, where the management structure is very flat and bosses do not get anywhere near the respect found overseas. Norwegian workers are accustomed to having their say and prioritizing family life and leisure activities over responsibilities at the office.

American Kimberly Lein-Mathisen told business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), that she was shocked when she in 2007 assumed her new position as managing director of the Norwegian offices of Eli Lillys, an international pharmaceutical company. She had only just learned of the generous welfare benefits, lengthy leaves of absence, and short work days Norwegian workers have long enjoyed. “At the time, I considered it completely over the top,” Lein-Mathisen says.

The underlying, egalitarian system that regulates a Norwegian workplace can be quite the adjustment for executives who are used to more competitive environments abroad. Even the concept of denoting an employee of the month is culturally questionable. In the US, this is a practice that is meant to boost the morale of employees and is a forum for giving individuals who excel an added pat on the back – a gesture that in Norwegian culture would lead to more embarrassment than pride for the person singled out.

In addition, folks come to the office in jeans and T-shirts, sometimes have their pets with them and, more importantly, rarely stay late at the office, have lots of vacation time and long parental leave, as well as the right to stay home with a sick child. Foreigners are often accustomed to much more discipline on the job than this. French patisserie-owner Pascal Dupuy was shocked when his first boss in Norway had been afraid to reprimand him, and feels that Norwegian bosses should be stricter. “I am not strict to be mean, I am strict with those who are not doing their job properly,” Dupuy told DN.

Making executive decisions also presents its challenges. During a recent discussion aired on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) with Åse Kleveland, former top Labour politician and culture minister, it was agreed that in Norway, making a decision often means the decision simply becomes the subject of even more debate, and everyone at all levels can have their say.

“If one is to succeed as a foreign executive in Norway, it has to be done the Norwegian way,” cross-cultural consultant Anita Ekvall told DN. Ekvall, who is Swedish, has assisted in several mergers between Norwegian corporations and international actors, and describes the Norwegian approach as crossing the bridge once you get to it, as opposed to long-term thinking. “In Norway you solve issues as they come along, instead of trying to assess them in advance.”

Paul Curran recently quit as head of Norway’s National Opera, after complaints about his arrogant management style and alleged failure to develop new Norwegian works. Curran, originally from Scotland, apparently did not know how to play by Norwegian rules. It is clear that in the Norwegian workplace, employees have more say than most and as cultural interpreter Bjørn Christian Nørbech told DN, “the possibility of going home at 4 o’clock does not exist many places in the world. One may have heard about it, but you have to experience it in order to fully understand it.”

Views and News from Norway/Liv Buli
Join our Readers’ Forum or comment below.

To support our news service, please click the “Donate” button now.