Is Canadian Politeness a Threat to Workplace Innovation?

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As Canadian’s we are known as a community of polite individuals respectful of one another. We don't want to offend anyone so we agree so as not to ruffle feathers. We are typically not demanding but seen as leaders in consensus thinking. In general, Canadian’s are seen as the mediators of the world. Although this has many tangible benefits on the worldwide stage, could it be harmful to our success and innovative thinking in the workplace?

I was just reading Amanda Lang’s book The Power of Why. In the book she analyses how creativity is cultivated. She speaks about being open to challenging the way things are done to arrive at different results. It got me thinking....how am I as a leader, attracting creativity or innovation into my business? Am I open to be challenged or am I part of the problem?

As I reflected on my approach I asked myself, “ Do I want to build a company that has a lot of nodding dogs (you know the kind you stick on the back window of your car that nods along in agreement with everything) or do I want to create something different?”

As I look at the business world today a lot of organizations (including my own to a degree) breeds the nodding dog philosophy. We want everyone to get along and buy in. If you challenge or rock the boat you often don’t get the gold star but a time out or walking papers. I think much of what scares us about contrary thinking has to do with our belief systems around challenging authority. It’s more about how uneasy we get when people question established workplace patterns, systems, or rules. (It’s also about how we teach people to do this effectively in organizations. Most people do not know how to effectively express contrary ideas). We seem to believe that we have to get people to follow along and if they don’t a red flag goes up as if they are a threat to the well being of an organization. Is that really true or have we sold ourselves a paradigm that questioning is somehow wrong? Knowing that questioning leads to innovative thinking how did we get stuck here?

In the workplace today, are we rewarded with questioning the way things are done or are we punished for doing so?

We all grew up with a standardized system of learning that measure success by repeating what the teacher told us. We weren’t asked to think on our own and success was measured by regurgitating not thinking. We have adapted much of this school-based model of measuring learning in the workplace. People get scores for annual evaluations. People are rewarded for staying within the box. It is easy to see why we lose creativity when we are at work. We treat work much like a school environment listening to authority and not questioning it. If we know we want to cultivate questioning in the workplace to inspire new ideas, how do we do this? We need to create a safe environment where we invite questioning to lead us to innovative ways of growing.

Reaping the full potential of employee innovation requires removing the barriers that thwart it. Innovative ways and ideas are unlikely to flourish in an overly risk-averse culture.

2011 Public Service Employee Survey Focus on Innovation, Treasury Board Of Canada Secretariat


I drive my 13-year-old son to school daily and have learned through his inquiry what a brilliant mind he is developing. He questions almost everything from a way of gaining new insight or perspective. He challenges status quo to explore ideas not to cause conflict. I often think that many leaders in industry would see huge value in his thought processing. If it is possible for kids to have this ability to breathe new life into established principles, could this same capacity be leveraged to transform the way people in organizations think? He does not see limits to what is possible. This is how he goes through life. Imagine having a team of people in your business using their thought power to have no limits to what your business could do?


I believe it all starts with a willingness to perceive questions being asked (that challenge the way things are done) as a gift to your organization not a curse (if structured effectively). Instead of arriving at work and saying the standard “ we are doing it this way because this is always the way it’s always been done,” imagine being able to stand back and say “ What if we did it differently? How would that change our outcome?” Contrary thinking needs to be leveraged effectively for innovative growth. The thought power that is not being used internally today is mind-boggling.

Innovator Debra Kaye in her book Red Thread Thinking comments “ a national study by staffing firm Robert Half International of 1400 CFO”s at companies with more than 20 employees found that 35% of CFO’s say that a shortage of new ideas is the biggest barrier to their companies being more innovative.”


Create an environment that allows questioning to get ideas flowing. What if.... we changed how we managed project teams would we get things done more efficiently? What trends do you see taking place that we are missing the boat on? How could we shift our office structure? What about leadership planning? Do you see a few key leaders at the top or a shifting paradigm, which welcomes a more shared power structure with all levels of leadership being accountable to each other? How about a daily forum where people are encouraged to disagree to purposefully shift traditional ways of operating? For some, the notion of inviting contrary thinking might feel risky or kind of like welcoming chaos into the workplace. How on earth would we function if employees started questioning authority? I realize that having a structure to manage how this is done is critical to your organizations operational flow. However, finding a way to allow employees to freely share ideas and reward them for out of the box thinking could mean the next best idea is cultivated by the greatest minds already working in your company.

I don't think I have all the answers but the fact that I’m asking the questions means I am open to new ways of thinking and being in the workplace. I am not a creature of habit so often see things differently than the rest of the world. I welcome change without fear. I now welcome and see value in the questions people ask about how things are done. Shift your thinking from seeing questioning as a negative form of inquiry to seeing questioning as a source of new discoveries.


Imagine what your workplace would be like if everyone was able to walk through the office doors with innovative thinking caps on and felt comfortable sharing their ideas? Wouldn't it be cool to establish a contrary thought board where people could share ideas and welcome being challenged? If you do create a safe and open environment to new ways of thinking, and reward it internally, the possibilities for building passion, growing creativity and strengthening corporate culture are endless. Disagree constructively with your team today and ask for the gold star tomorrow.

Honor employees who question the way things are done. They are your future.

About Denise Baril

Denise is the founder and chief creator of fun at the Workplace Speaker Network. Denise has two inspiring children who help her think outside the box. To reach Denise: denise@workplacespeakernetwork.com or at 1 (403) 620-5010 or visit


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