11/23/2011 12:28 EST | Updated 01/22/2012 05:12 EST

Is Our Politeness Holding Us Back?

Our national productivity and innovation challenges seem to have risen to the top of the agenda once again -- and for good reason. Despite all the talk and worry of the past couple of decades, all our key indicators are still pointing in the wrong direction; our productivity gains continue to be very anemic; our closest competitors are leaving us further in the dust in terms of per capita GDP; and our sources of true growth and innovation are narrowing more and more into just a few very specific sectors, particularly around resource extraction.

These are very worrying signs and many of the leading thinkers in our country understand the urgency of the problem. What's holding Canada back? How did a nation with such a great legacy of innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking become so much more cautious and comfortable in the span of just one generation? Can we fix our productivity gap just by rethinking and refreshing some of our antiquated protectionist policies and by training the next generation of technocrats to think less conventionally and more creatively -- or could there also be a bit of a "national psyche" issue lurking in the background?

I was speaking at a couple of national conferences this past week. My topics had little to do with productivity or innovation, but the way the audience responded to my presentations caused me to pause and reflect on our overall conversation style as a nation and our appetite for risk. At both of these events, most of the other speakers offered a classic Canadian blend of polite perspectives, accolades for past achievements and inspiring words of encouragement, with any bad news or concerns so gently packaged and tightly buried in their talk that most listeners would naturally smile, relax and maybe consider another snooze.

Ironically, these two conferences were on the topics of corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability -- where our global reputation as a nation is truly spiralling right now -- and yet the prevailing tone was so polite, future-positive and self-congratulatory. And then, when I took the podium and chose to speak much more directly about our collective failure as practitioners, the absence of any measurable results and our remarkable ability to placate ourselves with plenty of talk and very little action, the audience suddenly cheered! They actually seemed to enjoy the blunt tone, the honest examples of failure and the intense sense of urgency. Despite what we've been trained to fear as the world's most polite people, nobody seemed offended by the 'unplugged' tone.

As it turns out these smart industry leaders weren't really there to hear how good they are; they had come looking for a challenge, a stretch and a roadmap. If all we gave them were pats on the back, they would have likely gone home smiling but less inspired at the end of the day -- and perhaps with less of an appetite to think and innovate.

Could it be that our world-leading national politeness and gentleness is actually holding us back a bit from stretching our minds and our capabilities? How do we find a way to stay nice and play to win at the same time? Maybe we need to have a blunt national conversation on this one...