Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Please excuse me, I'm Canadian, thank you very much

Is there such a thing as being too polite?

Canadians are known as a "polite people". Ask someone in any other country what comes to mind when you say "Canadian" and politeness will inevitably come up, along with reserved, conservative and hockey-mad. My personal list also includes tolerant, easy-going, peace-loving and multicultural...but I digress.

According to some thinkers, our global do-gooder reputation is starting to hurt us. Best-selling author Patrick Lencioni, author of books with great titles like Death by Meeting and The Five Disfunctions of a Team, suggests that our preocupation with politeness will affect our ability to come out of the economic downturn.

Speaking recently in Toronto, he suggested that Canadian business leaders are conflict-avoidant and as a result will try to avoid some of the tough decisions that need to be made to steer their organizations out of the recession, choosing instead to focus on external factors over which they have no control. This just leads to increased organizational angst because as everyone knows, when conflict is not dealt with at the top, it doesn't go away, it just migrates down the line where it plays out in other (mostly unpleasant) ways.

He argues that, if Canadian executives were not so afraid of conflict, they could use this time as an opportunity to be honest about their organizational strength and carefully refine the team, ideas and strategies. Alas, this means shaking things up, being willing to step on toes and embrace conflict and that's just not us, is it?

I'm not sure I agree completely. On the one hand, I feel that it is our conservative Canadian value system that has kept our financial institutions in check and healthy at a time when banks are collapsing all over the world. Yeah for that! But, I feel that our fear of conflict (especially among our elected officials) is also what enabled a large group of protesters waving a terrorist flag to close down important city streets in Toronto for days in a row, bringing traffic to a standstill and inconveniencing thousands.

There's a difference between being polite and being a doormat. It's possible to make the tough, sometimes unpopular, decisions without resorting to chainsaw tactics. I wager that you can be polite, classy AND tough as nails. It's all in the delivery.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Louise. As a 'newly elected' person - ok for an industry trade organization (ha!) - I hope I don't get paralysed trying to please everyone all the time. I do know that, like many Canadians, I fall into the conflict-avoidance category a little too often. I agree that we don't have to steamroll. Just be honest and be yourself. Making a decision is always better than not.