Bosses often baffle foreign workers

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Results of a new international employment survey show that workers in Norway generally enjoy their jobs but their bosses score low for failing to give clear instructions or constructive feedback. Foreign workers in Norway are especially baffled by bosses who don’t behave like most bosses in other countries.

“I think Norway has the most unusual business culture in the world,” consultant Karin Ellis of Ellis Culture and Consulting told newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend. “You don’t need to go farther than Sweden to see how the workplace culture (in Norway) sets itself apart from other countries.”

No clear orders
Ellis said employees can be most confused by Norwegian boss’ reluctance to issue orders, an unclear chain of command in many companies, vague instructions from employees’ superiors and bosses who don’t control or behave like a boss.

Foreign workers in Norway, who already face challenges getting hired by Norwegian companies, then need to learn how to decipher their peculiarities once on staff. Workers from countries where companies have more assertive management and a clear hierarchy can be especially confused, because they’re easily unsure of what the boss expects, said Ellis, who conducts courses for foreigners in the Norwegian way of doing business.

“A typical example is when a boss asks an employee “å se på noe” (to have a look at something),” Ellis said. “That often means the employee is supposed to solve a problem or offer offer a recommendation. A worker who’s accustomed to getting clearer messages and follow-up won’t always know what’s meant, and may literally look at the problem but not do anything with it.”

Poor follow-up
The new European Employee Index for 2013 confirms that Norwegian managers are often poor at following up their employees’ work and performance, at setting clear goals and outlining his or her expectations. The index measured employee satisfaction, motivation and loyalty in 28 countries.

“We see that employees in Norway are dissatisfied with their closest leaders, and miss constructive follow-up and feedback,” Paal Leveraas of HR Norge, which conducted the survey in Norway, told Aftenposten.

Brahma Dalei, an IT architect at information technology firm Evry in Oslo, is among foreign employees in Oslo who completed a course to learn how Norwegian managers manage in companies with a traditional flat structure. “One boss told me that I’d done a good job, and added a ‘but…'” said Dalei, who joined Evry when it merged with an Indian IT firm in 2007 to enhance its competence. “It took some time before I understood that it was what he said after the ‘but’ that was the real message.”

‘Clear differences’
Ellis said the companies themselves need to improve how they communicate, or at least be aware that workers from other cultures may not be prepared for the Norwegians’ indirect way of making assignments. “There are clear differences (between Norwegian firms and those abroad),” said Endre Sjøvold, an assistant professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. He noted that in Norway, employees can give direct feedback to the boss, a practice not always popular or even accepted in the US or UK. He thinks Norway’s historical lack of an aristocracy and its strong labour organizations make Norwegian managers preoccupied with securing support from employees, and can thus seem weak or indecisive.

Jørgen Kildahl, a Norwegian top executive at German energy firm Eon, remembers that he was told to be “less clear” when working in Norway, while he gets the opposite message in Germany. “In Germany the boss is supposed to say what shall be done and how it shall be done, while in Norway the form is indirect,” Kildahl said. “In Norway, they’re more process-oriented than decision-oriented, but that doesn’t make the Norwegian workplace less effective. The time used on planning is made up for at implementation.”

Sjøvold agreed. “It can take more time to agree in Norway’s consensus-based system, and managers can be too unclear,” he said. “On the other hand, a flat structure means that once a decision is made, it will spread easily through the entire organization.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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