Dissent is the lifeblood of all great businesses – but blow up too many bridges, and nobody gets anywhere

A balding, middle-aged man walks away from 10 Downing Street carrying a cardboard box full of his personal possessions. Critics note that there is no plant pot, which they take as symbolic of a harsh, uncaring personality. Thus ends the reign of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former special adviser. The man who predicted a “hard rain” would fall on the civil service has been washed away. In his wake, there is much talk of “reset”, a move to a less confrontational style, infused with goodwill, respect and positivity. The message is clear: harmony good, conflict bad.

But hold on. Is it not the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl? Law firms are full of smart people with strong opinions. It’s not only futile, but damaging to expect them to be places of sunlit harmony. Successful businesses, especially those whose chief asset is their intellectual capital, make no attempt to avoid conflict. There is a big difference between common purpose and grey conformity. Examples are legion of riches to rags companies where challenge to the leadership has been strongly discouraged. As I write, the Arcadia Group, led by Sir Philip Green, described as “an analogue man in a digital age”, is on the point of collapse. An emperor whose life’s work was selling clothes has been found to have none, but it seems nobody could tell him.

The myth of collegiality

Whenever I ask client firms to describe themselves, “collegiate” often appears high up the list. True esprit de corps is a huge asset, but it’s always worth questioning whether what you see is the real thing. Collegiality is often a euphemism for tolerance of mediocrity, aversion to necessary confrontation, and settling for same-old, same-old. Do colleagues truly put the firm before self-interest? Do they think of clients as belonging to them or the firm? When did they last refer you a client, or take an interest in your practice area?

Conflict can be a powerful force for good. Dissent shakes our assumptions, and forces us to consider how to do things better. Steve Jobs, a truly great innovator, was notorious for being endlessly demanding, always questioning, never satisfied. But he strongly encouraged challenge, and the constant ebb and flow of ideas. Untroubled by COVID-19, he banned his staff from working from home, which he believed stopped creative collaboration in its tracks. The best businesses have a culture in which everyone is encouraged to speak their mind, and argue passionately for what they believe.

Rules of dissent

But there are rules. The most important is that whatever we argue for must be from the perspective of what is best for the business as a whole. Where dissent is motivated primarily by personal or sectional interest, at best it is a time and energy-sapping diversion; at worst, utterly destructive.

It matters, too, how we express dissent. Doing so with respect has become more difficult. On social media, in business, and in our personal lives, points of view are expressed in language that seems designed to generate more heat than light. In the face of bullying or emotive language, it is all too easy to abandon the field in favour of a quiet, if unhappy life. Words as well as actions have consequences. Just how much the performance of Home Office staff has improved as a result of being described by their current boss as “f***ing useless” is unclear.

Culture war or beneficial divergence?

We are encouraged to see those with whom we disagree as “the enemy”, and society as being embroiled in a culture war. Hardly a day goes by without people being cancelled, no-platformed, gaslighted or fired because of non-conforming views. As Trevor Phillips put it in The Times on 30 November, “Instead of encouraging diversity, our elites are becoming the enthusiastic enforcers of a Stalinist conformity.” In business, intolerance of difference is toxic. It creates factions, destroys trust and uses up precious energy in destructive battles for dominance.

A healthy culture starts at the top. A leader’s task is to articulate values and set ground rules. In truly collegiate firms, argument over what is best for the business and how it can be improved is not just a choice, but an obligation. So too is mutual respect, thoughtful language, an understanding of nuance, and willingness to accept that even where there is disagreement on an issue, there may be points of agreement that can be used to build consensus. So though it may sometimes be uncomfortable, embrace dissent, and all the good it brings. As the American humourist Kin Hubbard put it, “The fellow who agrees with everything you say is either a fool, or he’s getting ready to skin you.”

The Author

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. e: stephen@stephengold.co.uk; t: 0044 7968 484232; w: www.stephengold.co.uk; Twitter: @thewordofgold

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