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The Nordic model under pressure from new leadership methods
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The Nordic model under pressure from new leadership methods

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

New management models are threatening a long tradition of collective decision making within Nordic labour life, Nordic researchers say. Employees loose influence and their chance to cooperate to reach constructive solutions within organisations and businesses.

“Listen to us, we have the solution!” That was the message when some 20 Swedish health sector workplaces staged a demonstration on 4 September. They were worried about a health sector which is under increasing pressure as a result of cuts and staff shortages. Many are leaving and others suffer burn outs. Doctors, nurses and assistant nurses are therefore coming together to warn against putting patients at risk. 

“The solution is to listen to the staff. We have the solutions, we just have to be given the chance and make sure people don’t leave because they can’t take it anymore,” Sonja Nordström Johansson, a nurse in Älta near Stockholm, told Swedish Radio during the demonstration.

The fact that staff know how their company works and are therefore uniquely placed to help provide solutions in organisations and companies, is often highlighted as one of the reasons the Nordic countries have been doing so well. This is a long tradition of mutually giving and taking between employees and employers, often in cooperation with the state. 

“Joint decision making is what has made us world leaders in oil, shipping and fisheries. The three-partite cooperation has allowed everyone to contribute to the industrial and social development, and we must not allow this to disappear,” Jan-Olav Brekke, who heads the Norwegian Organisation of Managers and Executives (Lederne), told a seminar called ‘Do we need joint decision making in working life’ during the Arendal week in mid-August.

Harder to speak up

His worries partly stem from the latest leadership barometer, which has been presented annually since 2008. In Arendal the audience were given a taste of the latest report which will be published later in the autumn. In it, working life researchers Eivind Falkum and Bitten Nordrik from the Oslo Work Research Institute conclude that employees’ opportunt to influence companies is falling, especially when they want to present a criticism. 

40 percent of those asked felt it was difficult to alert management to grievances, and over one in three feared they would be punished for their criticism – by being given worse working tasks, lower pay and through bullying. Ultimately they risked loosing their job, something which has happened to nine percent of people criticising workplace conditions.

“This is a serious and dangerous signal. A healthy Norwegian working life needs employees who speak up about grievances at work. Bosses are responsible for encouraging and preparing the ground for criticism, taking employees who present criticism seriously and meet the courage which is needed to present grievances with respect,” said Jan-Olav Brekke.

The Nordic countries have a long tradition of cooperation between employers and employees. In Norway it is regulated through the Hovedavtalen (the basic agreement). It was first agreed in 1935 and is reviewed every three years. The last time was in 2014. 

The background for Hovedavtalen was, like Sweden’s 1938 Saltsjöbadsavtalet, a turbulent and conflict prone labour market. Eivind Falkum at the Work Research Institute explains how eight million working days were lost in Norway in 1930 as a result of labour conflicts. Compare that to 25,000 lost in 2015. 

Dialogue for progress

Since its beginning the Nordic model has been praised and is often used in fine speeches as an explanation for the Nordic countries’ progress. Research also supports the fact that the climate of cooperation which has developed over decades has benefited both companies helped innovation. The dialogue between the social partners, joint decision making and the habit of employers and employees to listen to each other has all created a level of trust in Nordic societies, a belief that you can solve problems through dialogue and agreements rather than through conflict. 

Yet despite the fine speeches the Nordic model is now under pressure, according to representatives from several trade unions taking part during the Arendal seminar. Many of them are worried about a tough climate, but also about the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to be a trade union representative and to represent employees. Many said they had difficulties getting heard – one of the basics for the dialogue which is at the core of the Nordic model.   

The Norwegian Police Federation has even gone as far as dissuading members from being whistleblowers, after seeing how harshly one of their members was dealt with when he pointed out faults in the investigation of a case which gained national attention. 

“As the trade union leader I ended up in conflict between the needs of the individual member’s health and the principle of being able to speak up about things that are not right.  We chose to protect the individual member,” said Sigve Bolstad, leader of the Norwegian Police Federation.

Different realities for leaders and employees

A similar negative development was also described by the leader of the Norwegian Medical Association, Kristian Grimsgaard, and Hilde Marit Rysst, head of SAFE – the trade union for personnel working in the onshore and offshore energy sector. Kristian Grimsgaard talked about how leaders and employees in the health sector seem to exist in separate realities, which he explained by how things were being run. A survey carried out a few years ago showed 85 percent of employees felt they had little chance to influence how things were run.   

“I don’t believe health sector leadership wants the joint decision making laid out in the Hovedavtale. But we must dare to criticise conditions and join the debate. We must make some noise!", said Kristian Grimsgaard.

“We get very clear feedback from our members saying it is hard to put your head above the parapet, no matter who you work for. That means it is hard to get people to take on trade union representative roles,” said Hilde Mari Rysst.

Jonny Simmenes, head of The Norwegian Engineers and Managers Association (FLT), also described a negative development when it came to joint decision making. He criticised the government for not listening to the social partners, and for not working for full employment and a high level of trade union membership – both necessary for the Nordic model.

“Our model for joint decision making which for the past 50 years has meant so much for our competitiveness and innovation has never been under greater threat than today. Our local representatives are finding it harder to be heard, which means that an important source of knowledge is being lost,” said Jonny Simmenes.

New management strategies are being imported from other cultures, with different labour market structures to our own. The question is whether the Nordic model is strong enough to withstand this?

New leadership strategies represent one explanation for the many tales of how it is becoming harder to make joint decision making work in the workplaces. 

“New management strategies are being imported from other cultures, with different labour market structures to our own. The question is whether the Nordic model is strong enough to withstand this?”, said researcher Bitten Nordrik from the Work Research Institute in Oslo.

Research does show that joint decision making has strong support among leaders, but it also shows that there is little knowledge of what it really means in the workplace. There is also a trend where traditional conflicts between employers and employees is being toned down. The way talent is being viewed has changed – nowadays the focus is not only on the employee’s knowledge, but also on their dedication and commitment. 

“You are more and more expected to give all you have to work. We also see that companies demand loyalty towards what they have decided, and the question is what this means for freedom of expression,” said Bitten Nordrik.

A high price for not listening to the whistleblowers

Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet (KI) recently had a painful experience which illustrated the importance of having the chance to present criticism and have it listened to. It was shaken by the so-called Macchiarini scandal. The Italian visiting professor Paolo Macchiarini blinded most people with his results, charisma and reputation as a surgeon. But his research results turned out to be false and his surgery proved disastrous for several of his patients. 

Some of his colleagues were suspicious from an early stage, but the leadership did not want to listen to the critics. Now both KI’s dean and board have been dismissed and KI’s brand has received a bad beating. 

Former dean Harriet Vallberg has told Swedish Radio that things started to go wrong when people failed to listen to the critics. 

“It started to unravel when we first realised that not all was well, and you didn’t listen to the whistleblowers,” said Harriet Vallberg.

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Debate about the Nordic Model

Bitten Nordrik and Eivind Falkum above, are researchers at the Work Research Institute, WRI. Here together with Jan-Olav Brekke, who heads the Norwegian Organisation of Managers and Executives (Lederne).

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