Research showing the way for successful companies

Päivi’s interest in working life began in the 1980s. Then, she was employed by one of the former tax agencies, and its transition from regulatory control to management by objectives and results made her interested in organizational theory. Päivi started studying at Umeå University and eventually ended up as a student at the University of Borås.

“My interest in organizational theory turned into an interest in sociology and then a PhD in working life science”, she says.

Her thesis, completed in 2013, showed how the introduction of new governance models need to match the identity and culture of the organisation in order to become successful. Her specialisation in management, governance, and organisation with a particular focus on managers and their work falls well into the activities of Centre of Working Life and Science (Swedish: CAV); the vision of which is to contribute to a sustainable working life. What is commonly called the ‘Swedish management style’ with low power distances and responsible employees has been a successful way to achieve this.

“Giving employees the opportunity to affect and influence but with reasonable demands creates employees that take responsibility, which also gives good profit”, Päivi Riestola says.

However, autonomy and employee freedom are not only positive. The more connected the employees are during the hours of the day, the more important that the managers set limits. In free or limitless jobs, there is a risk that the employees work far too much.

“Clear mandates give a sense of security, and paradoxically enough space too, as long as the limits are not too strict”, Päivi says.

An inclusive leadership takes time and requires long-term commitment.

As a researcher
, Päivi works closely with companies and organisations in mutual exchange. When Päivi and her research team gain access to current problems to research, the companies and organisations could then benefit from that research. One example is the report by Päivi Riestola and Margareta Oudhuis about Swedish management and inclusive leadership. Swedish management has not only been characterised by responsible employees that develop the organisation together with the management but also a certain amount of arbitrariness and unclear boundaries, a fear of conflicts, and a desire to agree. This is why new, global organisation models that reward clarity and structure are appreciated by managers as well as employees in these types of organisations.

“When we are overflowed by global models, there is a risk that trust and proximity disappear. You start cutting off tasks, which makes it easier to cut off entire departments. Eventually, we become objects instead of subjects and start treating each other thereafter.”

According to Päivi, a working life where people treat each other like objects would be terrible. Here, research can contribute with knowledge and arguments, for example through the new research policy proposition where working life is particularly pronounced. Even though the opportunities to influence are different in different organisations, Päivi believes that many of the managers in CAV: s manager network at least try.

“If the headquarters are in another country far away, this could be difficult. But it is important to understand that you at least need to translate new governance and management systems to the own culture and organisation. It is not possible to introduce competition and bonus systems in a culture based on consensus; you have to be aware of that. In one organisation, a certain management model may work in one department but not in another.”

Päivi believes that research could contribute with critical reflections before reorganisations and relocations, for example HR, where sick leave administration may end up in one part of the world and wages and salaries become handled somewhere else. The tasks may become streamlined, but you lose the whole.

“As working life researchers, we can show that there is a value having people within the organisation who know the organisation and what needs to be done. You cannot get that responsibility from a function on the other side of the world.”

Compared to models where a leader gives orders and employers obey, governance models with inclusive leadership require more of the leaders as well as the employers. However, an inclusive leadership takes time and requires long-term commitment, which is often lacking in organisations with short-term profits as their guiding principle. 

“Our study showed that what we call Swedish management with an inclusive leadership is successful when it works. Everybody knows what to do, and everyone trusts that their colleagues do their jobs.”

In the future, Päivi Riestola wants to study to which extent consensus culture and a fear of conflict live on in companies and organisations, and, if so, its importance to the abilities to work effectively for the sake of the company. 

About Päivi Riestola

Text Helena Lindh
Photo Suss Wilén