I completely disagree

SimpsonsFamilyGuyCrossoverTom Goodwin, SVP at Havas in NYC, and I have never met, but we’ve disagreed about things publically on Twitter, and been in violent agreement there too.  We share a view that a bit of devil’s advocacy is important to our industry.  Last month he tweeted “Passive agreement is killing vital discussions at conferences in particular”.

Too often a panel will be reticent to argue in public it seems.

In addition there is more and more compliance in public or indeed in small circles with the party line.  I was struck by the non-party line taken by one sales director of a media owner last week, where he felt very free to dismiss aspects of their content as not quite hitting the mark.  It was very convincing and I am impressed by his integrity, and bravery.  These days there is a tendency for some businesses to want to present a completely shiny and flawless united front to the outside world.  Apart from the fact that it isn’t very believable it begs a question about the culture of the organisation that public dissent is discouraged.

How far should you go with disagreements in public? All the way.  I don’t believe that someone’s relative status (whether more or less senior), gender or age should mean that you must comply publically or privately with what they say.  I am very aware that not many people see this like this.

I can remember one head of department expressing ambivalence about running department meetings (he had a department of over 100).  He said that he could imagine nothing worse than making an announcement to the team and being publically challenged.  I can imagine nothing better.  If someone has the conviction to challenge their department head publically then they must be so passionate, so convinced and so interested in the issue that this intervention would have huge value.

I believe in dialectic.  That if I put across a point of view, and someone disagrees with me then we can both build together on our perspectives to arrive at a creative and innovative answer.  So there is a thesis (a thought or opinion), followed by a disagreement or challenge which is the antithesis, which in turn can be resolved by the synthesis – a refinement of the idea or thought.

In the fast moving times that we all work in, no-one has the definitive answers to all of the questions and challenges that we face.  We can only work with good convincing evidence, and no answer is a proved answer in perpetuity anymore.  We can know that something works for now, until that situation changes.  We need to be specific about what we know and we don’t know for fact (there are too many woolly claims and vague notions), and open to everything being challenged or disagreed with.

Does everyone have the resilience for public challenge?  Perhaps not, but it is a useful thing to learn, especially if you are a leader.  The peer reviewed VIA Classifications are a good resource to understand how to build resilience.  They include: “not shrinking from threat; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition; curiosity and speaking the truth”.

It has been suggested to me that one should never disagree with a colleague in public, you should always stick to the party line and present challenges in private.  Yet we are working in an era where the landscape “is not remotely stable but is changing at mindboggling speed” as Martha Lane Fox puts it.  You can’t really have a very agile approach to business if you can’t disagree in public can you?

Or do you completely disagree?


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