Having Fun with the Notion of Culture


A 2 October, 2012 national Post article by Dan Ovsey titled (Are ‘fat and happy’ Canadians too chicken to invest in growth and innovation?) got me to think about the role of culture in promoting the predisposition to make chancy (“Because we have never done them this way before!”) decisions and act upon them. By way of a disclaimer, I am going to be taking several liberties about the so called Canadian psyche. I figure I can do so for two reasons:

  1. I want to illustrate how values can have deep behavioural implications on people
  2. I am a Canadian, so I am allowed to take these liberties.

First, what some of Dan’s key observations (note these are observations made by others that he has collected) are in his article:

  • Our inability to improve productivity levels may be a deep-seated cultural attribute.
  • Canadians have  a long standing culture of conservatism and risk aversion.
  • We don’t feel the need to go out and take risks.
  • Canada’s small business rank fifth in R&D spending among their counterparts in industrial nations.
  • We are a little more shy and timid, we don’t boast.
  • “We need to change people coming through our business schools, so they can take on a greater element of risk tolerance”
  • Canada’s complacent culture can only be overcome by developing a national strategy that remains unimpeded by provincial or territorial variances.
  • Canadian businesses can no longer  be insulated from foreign competition through protectionism.

Please permit me to get a strong sense of irony off my chest: the third and second from last points are just so reinforcing of the very  problem that is being lamented here in Dan’s article. Both points look to someone else (big authoritative daddy?) to solve my bias against higher risk tolerance. As if business schools are where most Canadians in business get their post secondary education. As if we ignore our distribution of powers and responsibilities between the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government.

But let us ask the question: Why are Canadians (including its business leaders) less risk tolerant than counterparts across the globe?

I suspect it has nothing to do with the “people” themselves as our population parallels that in the US in terms of we are a nation of immigrants.

I am going to suggest that it is the very mission statement of Canada’s Parliament that is a significant contributor. The parallel here is to the mission statement that many organizations have where they actually pay attention to their statements.

What is the essence of Parliament’s mission statement?

The British North American Act (a.k.a. 1867 Constitution Act) says (among other things):

Authorizes parliament to make laws for peace, order, and good government of Canada

The critical notions involving our conversation in this Blog are “peace” and “order”.

Both peace and order are values that , shall we say, “temper” our predisposition to taking on risks. Why?

Making a series of riskier (remember it is a matter of comparative degree here) actions results in  disruption to our ways of living together. How? If the action fails we suffer losses, hence our subsequent lives have to absorb these failure costs. If they succeed, we have change in our lives, the status quo is altered and our subsequent lives have to absorb these changes.

In OD many of us make obscene amounts of money helping people successfully implement change where there is resistance to it. Resistance is a form of conflict (yes even passive resistance). Hence, the notions of disruption and peace are at odds.

Let’s consider the notion of order vis. a vis. disruption. To me at least, it is even more apparent how these two values are often at odds to one another. Order has several critical elements: the sense of predictability, process, even procedure. Disruption is always about changing some of that.

Okay, this is conceptually interesting, but has it materialized in anything meaningful? Yes!

Many of Canada’s significant business activities are highly regulated: marketing boards, regulation of the telecommunications industry (including that we must hear Canadian talent and pay for Canadian TV channels that no one watches), nation building through use of a railroad monopoly/oligarchy, etc.

These institutions may all serve useful purposes, but the very nature of them is to clamp down on disruption caused by others. When the Wheat Board attempts to sue the Canadian Government (for the risk of opening up Canadian markets so we can get a broader free trade agreement), you are seeing a clear example of how the current order of things is being disrupted.

The purpose of this Blog is to raise the possibility, that the very core values of the Canadian constitution imbed within all of us a tempering influence on our personal inclinations to engage in riskier endeavours. Values can be insidious in their very impacts.

Values have a subliminal quality. They influence how we look and interpret the world around us. Especially if we have absorbed them without much thought about their unintended consequences. Why? Because we think that the way we think is the “natural order of things”, almost metaphysical true in nature. I would make the hypothesis, that for most of us, we have the values we have not because we engaged in some form of inquiry, but because our socialization processes encouraged their adoption.

The role and place of values in many organizations is all too often an exercise in cynicism. Yet, I would suggest that cynicism is an act of allegiance or affiliation with the very values themselves. Only outright rejection of the values or complete indifference are fundamentally opposed to a set of values that are inconsistently being modelled. In Canada, what is our number one plea when we get outraged by some event or situation?

We need another law/regulation/review/process to protect ourselves from the given plight and /or bring order to the situation. Risk tolerance always welcomes raggedness, messiness, hurt feelings, etc. Why? Because we are changing what we have. We fight change from two root reasons: we like the status quo, and/or, we don’t like the new world order.

So I would sadly conclude that at the end of the day, in Canada, we really don’t want to encourage much more risk tolerance in our population as this would create undesired stresses on our country’s peace and order.

I told you this would be fun.

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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