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Euh, pardon…I am Canadian.

June 24, 2008

IS IT POLITENESS OR HYPOCRISY THAT KEEPS US FROM MEANING WHAT WE SAY AND SAYING WHAT WE MEAN?

Last week I was having a farewell drink with an acquaintance who was leaving to go back to her native France. As we sipped homemade mojitos, I asked, “What was it about Canada that you liked the most, and what was it that you liked the least?”

She said, “You know, I love that Canadians have a mutual respect for one another. Everybody is so nice and considerate. But I can’t understand why Canadians keep apologizing for everything. It just makes them sound like hypocrites. If you’re apologizing, it sounds like you don’t mean what you say. And if you don’t mean what you say, why say it at all?”

She makes a good point. We do seem to apologize a lot. In fact, according to a Reader’s Digest article published in 2006, Torontonians are ranked among some of the politest urbanites in the world. (Third, in fact, behind New Yorkers and the lovely folk living in Zurich.)

Perhaps this is why the vast majority of Canadians are known around the world for being ‘middle of the road’ or not wanting to ‘rock the boat’. We are often characterized as individuals who see both sides of the coin and who are always perfectly agreeable. (And if you’ve seen some South Park episodes, the writers of that show are not quite as polite about it.)

I couldn’t help but wonder: is this why we tend to avoid or deflect conflict in the workplace? It seems to me that in many professional situations we shy away from having a frank discussion about an issue that may be political or thorny, because we’re afraid that criticism or disagreement will be taken personally. Or, we’re afraid of the consequences of being honest, so we sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not there. And if we do muster the courage to say something, it’s often sugar-coated with phrases like “no offence” or “I don’t mean to offend you”. To my friend’s point: in order to avoid conflict, we’re so polite it’s almost hypocritical.

But as we all know, a certain level of conflict is good. Functional conflict (the kind that arises from having a difference of opinion, goals or values) can increase group performance, create and stimulate innovation, encourage interest among groups and foster an environment of self-evaluation and change. The flipside is well, the opposite. When there is too much conflict it can breed discontent, destructiveness, and lowered productivity. This destructive conflict arises from negative emotions about the other person or group and it can cause dysfunction in a team.

As a manager, the trick is to be able to read both and know when to step in. Sometimes, the situation calls for us to concede, other times for us to diffuse and sometimes to collaborate. Either way, it’s important to allow for some disagreement to surface without having to apologize for what we think. That’s the only way critical business issues will get the attention they deserve. And the sooner we can deal with those critical issues, the sooner we can think of new and better ideas. (And if you’re like me, those always come best with a good mojito!)