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Cultural differences in an international company

When a managerial position frees up at Vattenfall, a Swede will react with, "Seems interesting, but would I be a good fit?" whereas a German would think, "OK, if all my criteria are met, I'll take it," and the Dutch in their turn would come with, "Finally, they understand that the next manager has to be me." 

Vattenfall is a company borne of the Swedish soil. It began to expand internationally in the 1990s. Employees and managers with varying histories, cultures and personalities have been put through the ringer. The story above gives you a preview of the contents of the rather unscientific article you are about to read. With the help of the input of employees in our countries, this article will attempt to give you a glimpse of the melting pot that is the result of Vattenfall entering into a number of north-western European countries. What are the similarities and differences between our Group countries?

Democratic Swedes

The general image that Vattenfall countries have of Swedes is that they are characterised by democracy, equality and stability. They are perceived as pleasant, polite, calm, well-read and 'engineerish' and, they are perceived as unable to express their opinion. And they love meetings – meetings devoid of decision-making. From the German viewpoint, Swedes lack structure and time plans, are always happy and seek consensus. The Dutch see Swedes as conflict avoiders who accept the facts and who deliver.

Swedish family values, however, can be a source of misunderstandings. "You promised you'd provide this information today." "Yes, but my child is ill so I need to go home." The more liberal Swedish view of parenthood – that both men and women share the responsibility to care for an ill child – has surely triggered the Germans and Dutchmen more than once.

The Dutch think it's funny that Swedes are incapable of taking the last piece of cake or whatever else may be on the platter. They will always leave ONE piece, or they will split the last piece among everyone.

Polite Germans

Is it okay to take comments from a person outside the project during an ongoing meeting?
Is it okay to take comments from a person outside the project during an ongoing meeting?
Germans, on the other hand, are perceived by the other countries as being proper, polite, structured and hierarchical. Even the smallest project must be preceded by a risk analysis and include a time plan and budget. And you must make it clear if you disagree with something and take care to remain somewhat aloof.

An illustrative example of culture clash comes from an international meeting at Vattenfall in which a problem suddenly arose. The Swedes spontaneously called in a passing colleague and asked for help in solving the problem. Calling in a person who is not on the project was perceived as highly irregular, if not a fully unthinkable action, by the Germans.

Perhaps the greatest cultural difference between Sweden and the rest of Europe is their differing views on industry and the environment. When the Swedish press described Vattenfall's lignite operations in Germany, articles were generally accompanied by a backlit image that made the white vapour surrounding a large cooling tower appear as brown smoke from an enormous chimney. For Swedes, lignite plants are possibly the filthiest thing they can think of. But when Germans were asked what the biggest difference was when Vattenfall took over, they said that now they can at least see through the windows that were previously always covered in filth from the old Soviet coal-fired power plants. In Germany, Vattenfall was appreciated for its environmental contribution, whereas in Sweden, it was considered an environmental villain.

Jänschwalde power plant in Germany
Jänschwalde power plant in Germany

Customer-focused Dutchmen

When Vattenfall acquired Nuon in 2009, the Swedes reacted to the record high price tag for this 'unknown' power company. In the Netherlands, the perception was that Vattenfall and Nuon had merged, not that Vattenfall had acquired Nuon. The highly customer-focused character of Nuon was a wakeup call for Vattenfall that it was time to start prioritising customers.

In many ways, Dutchmen and Germans are thought to be rather similar. Both like to have meetings and discussions. But, the Dutch are often perceived as being louder and thought to have an eternal need to question the purpose of everything. Some Germans went so far as to say that Dutchmen are rude and unaware of what it means to be nice.

Satisfied Poles

At the end of the 90s, Vattenfall procured several power plants in Warsaw and lucrative electricity grids in southern Poland. GZE, with its one million customers, was the first electricity grid company to be privatised, a move that was highly appreciated by the Poles. They saw a chance to learn from the Swedes. They had a strong belief in and great expectations on Swedish leadership, even though the dress code of Swedes visiting the Polish management team was sometimes not appreciated. Gradually, hierarchical management structures were dissolved and middle management could no longer simply present problems and wait for directives, but were now forced to propose their own solutions. The work environment lightened up and employees began to grow. In just a few years, Vattenfall became the company with the most satisfied customers and employees and the highest profitability. The 2011 decision to sell their holdings in Poland was a great disappointment for many. Vattenfall sold off the coal-burning power plants and freed up capital for the Nuon procurement.

Positive Danes

In 2006, Vattenfall procured the ENERGI E2 and Elsam companies, several wind power turbines, valuable expertise in wind power and three fossil-powered power plants. What was a quickly reacting organisation of 1,200 people at E2 became part of the considerably larger Vattenfall and all the financial clout it brought. A Vattenfall that looked to expand and wanted to hand-pick its employees. The majority of Danish employees had a very positive attitude to Vattenfall. The words, "We acquired you because we need you," were enough to make people want to come to work. This opinion partially turned when Vattenfall sold off the three coal-burning power plants a few years later in order to fully invest in wind power expansion.

Resolute Finns

In 1995, when Vattenfall began to procure a couple of electricity distribution companies in the Finnish countryside, there was great resistance and distrust due in part to the centralisation of local customer service offices and the outsourcing of electricity grid staff. Swedish companies such as Volvo and IKEA were highly appreciated, but it was perhaps too big a step to go from being local Finnish market players to international and Swedish. Leadership in Finland was more hierarchical and authoritarian; there were no long discussions and meetings as in Sweden. The boss made the decisions. One Finnish manager tells us, "Our motto has always been to only rely on ourselves. Still to this day, we are boggled by how much trust Swedes put in consultants."

British Gentlemen

Brits are known for their gentlemanly politeness, something that is rather foreign to Swedes. Even though Swedes can appreciate the somewhat cynical British sense of humour, this sense of humour can also be a sign of something else: "I knew that if one of my British employees started using sarcasm and jokes, things were serious," says one Swedish manager who has held positions in many countries.

The Vattenfall of today, an inclusive culture

Times have changed and employees have a better understanding of, and even adopt, each others' cultures. In 2019, diversity and inclusiveness are just as natural as an accelerating innovative company culture. Nowadays, employees work across country borders, business areas and units. The Vattenfall goal to enable customers to live without fossil fuels within the course of one generation not only unifies the company, but defines a clearly staked course for employees and society.

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