Thursday, June 6, 2013

Figuring out the Norwegian workplace

The job section of this past Sunday’s Aftenposten had an interesting article about Norwegian workplace culture entitled ‘How does the Norwegian boss think’? Foreigners who work in Norway often find themselves at a loss when it comes to figuring out how their bosses think and how to interpret what they say to you—what do they really mean by their comments and remarks, and have you understood the context of what was said? The importance of understanding your workplace and the signals given you by your bosses and colleagues cannot be overemphasized, especially where career advancement and salary are concerned. The article interviewed three Norwegian company directors/leaders who are Norwegian and who had worked internationally; they were asked to comment on what makes Norwegian workplaces different from workplaces in the rest of the world, since Norway’s workplace culture is quite unique (of course, why is this not surprising to me). Here are their thoughts:

  • Leader #1 meant that Norwegian workplaces are ‘process-oriented’, not ‘solution-oriented’, and that a problem or an issue could be discussed ad nauseum before a decision is made
  • Leader #2 had a similar opinion to leader #1, stating that many foreigners are simply not used to having the entire organization get involved before a decision can be made about a particular issue
  • Leader #3 meant that Norwegian workplaces are relatively ‘flat structures’ where each individual employee has a high degree of authority to make his or her own decisions without having to consult a boss
Whenever I read such articles, they trigger some interesting feelings and thoughts, so that I ‘feel a blog post coming on’. I can relate to the first two leader comments; specific issues are discussed over and over in multiple meetings over many months, perhaps years, before decisions are reached. Frustrating? Yes. My question is why this has to be the norm. However, and this is the crux of the matter, someone ultimately has to make the final decision. Whether it is a committee at the top of an organization, or one person, someone has to take the ultimate responsibility. An organization of several hundred individuals is not responsible for a final decision; some of them may come with input and advice toward a decision, but the responsibility lies ultimately with company leaders. Who makes the ultimate decision can often be a mystery, and whether or not employees are informed about a final decision rests with those who are responsible for communicating it. Information flow downwards can be a true exercise in frustration. There is no transparency at the top of huge public sector workplaces, in any case. And I disagree entirely with the third leader; it has not been my experience in my public sector workplace that each individual employee has a say concerning a decision to be made that will affect them. Simply not true. The third leader has simply not visited my workplace recently; the six or more levels of (administrative) leadership between the individual employee and the top echelons ensure that you as an individual employee have little to no authority to make decisions that affect your daily work life. You can individually be the most ‘solution-oriented’ employee in the world; it won’t matter. You are forced to deal with the top-heavy administrative levels above you. Take ordering a lab reagent or small piece of equipment, for example; before a necessary item can be ordered, at least six to eight people need to be involved in the process of ordering—the person who needs the product and who informs the relevant department person who then registers the order and passes it along in the system to the person (or persons) who actually order the product on the computer. But we’re not done yet. They may order or they may pass the order along to yet another office that will do the ordering. It all depends, on what I’m not sure. Project funds have to be checked to make sure there is enough money to order the product; that can involve the accounting department. And if the item is actually ordered, it is shipped to a central receiving department that then delivers the item to the person who registered the order, not to the person who needed the item. This means that the secretarial consultants who register the orders receive on average ten packages a day. They must check their files to find out who needed the product ordered and then chase down the relevant person who requested the item. The actual invoice goes to an unknown place; no one is really sure where it ends up or how it gets paid. If this was truly my call (if I had any real authority), I'd call, fax, or email the company myself with my order, cutting out the multiple middlemen, and have the item delivered directly to me. The current ordering process reminds me of the excellent film Brazil, about the tentacles of bureaucracy and how when they find you, they can destroy your life and peace of mind. My question is—why do we need all these people involved? This was not my decision, to make it so complicated. And perhaps more importantly—is there any one person who understands the system well enough to explain it to others? No one seems to have thought of that. 

My conclusion is that these three leaders espouse a politically-correct rhetoric. It makes employees feel good to read that they have some autonomy and can influence the decision process; in truth they have little autonomy and little influence, at least in the public sector. We may have had more of both back in the 1990s, but no more. 

According to the article, a number of companies have started to offer courses about understanding Norwegian workplace culture, to employees who come from other countries/cultures with a different way of doing things. Such courses, along with formal career guidance, were non-existent when I arrived in Norway. I don’t know if they would have helped or not, since I work in the public, not the private sector, and most of these newspaper job articles seem to deal with the private sector. But one thing is certain; communication with bosses in the public or private sector can be muddled, messages from them unclear, ditto for job tasks and definitions. How can you know for sure if your recent efforts on a particular project are praiseworthy or not? Are you being considered for advancement in your organization? Should you actively seek out career advancement, mentors and advocates? Will you be considered too aggressive if you do, or will it be considered appropriately professional to do so? No one really tells you what to do or how to behave, at least not directly to your face. You have to figure out most of these kinds of things on your own, because communication is often very indirect, and suggestions to employees as to how to go about doing things may be presented in a rather offhand informal manner. This is the art of thinking like a Norwegian in your workplace—figuring it all out for yourself, except that if you are Norwegian, you have understood this from the get-go. As a foreigner, you will miss the signals that tell you that what you’ve just been told is important, you will make a fair amount of mistakes before you understand how to respond or react, how to deal with your bosses, and how to understand their dealings and communication with you, and you will waste a fair amount of time trying to understand a system that cannot be understood (my impression). In that sense, I miss the directness and assertiveness of American workplaces; communication between boss and employee is often much clearer and easier to understand, perhaps more formal and professional, yes, but I prefer that to ambiguity and vague promises and suggestions.  

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