Let’s be glad that Canada isn’t the deferential society it once was

A number of years ago, an astute observer of the Canadian political scene by the name of Neil Nevitte wrote a book called The Decline of Deference. Nevitte’s work dealt with what was arguably the most profound change that emerged from the Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien eras — how we went from being polite, obedient people who went to church on Sunday, obeyed their political leaders and accepted their lot in life, to today’s more assertive Canadians who insist on having their rights, don’t go to church all that much anymore, and who see their elected representatives in Ottawa as strange people who see themselves as being much more important than they really are.

While there might still be a few people out there who mourn the disappearance of the Old Canada — the people who still hold former prime minister Pierre Trudeau to blame for much of what ails the country, 25 years after his leaving office — we probably would have been worse off if we remained the deferential, heirarchy-respecting people we once were.

The reason for this comes from the work of a Dutch social scientist by the name of Geert Hofstede, who came up with a survey of initially 150 questions (later narrowed down to 20), which could be used to measure how accepting people were of heirarchy and how inclined they were to be deferential.

An analysis of how people answered these questions produced a “Power Distance Index” score, with higher scores showing a tendency to respect heirarchy and to be deferential, and lower scores showing a tendency to be egalitarian and assertive.

Fielding this survey throughout the world showed that there were huge differences between countries.

As the following map shows, much of Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia are made up of countries in which respect for heirarchy and deferring to one’s superiors is deeply entrenched in the culture. (Note that France, Belgium and Portugal are also among these more heirarchical countries.)

Heirarchy vs. Egalitarianism

Heirarchy vs. Egalitarianism

Egalitarianism vs. Heirarchy throughout the world: Orange-ish shades indicate egalitarian cultures, while reds indicate more heirarchical, deferential cultures. Click for more details.

By contrast, the English-speaking countries — Canada, the U.S., Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand — plus Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries — tend to have more egalitarian cultures.

Indeed, if you’re a Canadian under the age of 50, there’s a very good chance that you have never had a boss that you were not on a first-name basis with.

In less-egalitarian Colombia, France or India, having the temerity to call your boss by his or her first name would likely be seen as a career-limiting move to say the least.

These less-egalitarian countries are not well served by their respect for heirarchy. As Malcolm Gladwell reported in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, investigators who were puzzled as to why some countries’ pilots had a greater propensity for crashing their airplanes than other countries’ pilots found that culture played a key role.

Essentially, the problem was that co-pilots from more deferential countries were hesitant to correct a captain’s mistakes because to do so meant taking the risk of being seen as impertinent or disrespectful.

Avianca Flight 52 disaster, 1990: How a crew’s unwillingness to challenge a captain’s authority caused a Boeing 707 to run out of fuel in mid-air.

However, more deferential countries also suffer in other ways. My own research of well-to-do OECD countries has found that the more deferential a country is, the more likely it is to have serious problems with corruption. Citizens of more deferential countries are also less likely to be satisfied with their lives or their jobs, and these countries tend to invest less in research and development.

What’s true for countries is almost certainly true for organizations as well, with heirarchical organizations being more likely to harbour corruption, be rife with demoralized members or employees, and to be followers rather than leaders when it comes to innovation.

Had Canada not shed its culture of deference, it certainly would not be the desirable place to live that it is today. By letting go of our old deference, we have turned our backs on a culture that was once more accepting of corruption, began to right some old wrongs (the notorious residential schools were symbolic of the Old Canada that kept secrets), and have seen a groundswell in Canadian pride since the early ’90s, when pundits talked about a country that was careening toward bankruptcy and breakup.

Long live the new, less deferential Canada!


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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