A view from Sue Unerman

Disagreement is the lifeblood of our industry

I have never met Tom Goodwin, the senior vice-president at Havas in New York, but we have disagreed about things publicly on Twitter and been...

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, it feels like a panel will be reticent to argue in public.

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, when he dismissed aspects of the company's content as not quite hitting the mark. He 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 believable, it begs a question about the culture of the organisation if public dissent is discouraged.

How far should you go with disagreements in public? All the way. I don’t believe that someone’s status (whether more or less senior), gender or age should mean you must comply publicly or privately with what they say. But not everyone sees it like this.

I can remember one head of department expressing ambivalence about running department meetings (he had a division of more than 100). He said he could imagine nothing worse than making an announcement and being publicly challenged. I can imagine nothing better. If someone has the conviction to challenge their department head, 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 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, and this in turn can be resolved by the synthesis – a refinement of the idea or thought.

In these fast-moving times we work in, no-one has the definitive answers to all the questions and challenges that we face. We can only work with good, convincing evidence and no answer is a proved answer in perpetuity any more. We can know something works for now – until that situation changes. We need to be specific about what we know and what we don’t know for a 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 stick to the party line and present challenges in private. Yet we are working in an era when the landscape is "not remotely stable but is changing at mind-boggling 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?

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom