When staff disagree with you….
There’s been an interesting and sad twist to the controversy about boxer Tyson Fury’s nomination for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award. Andy West, a BBC reporter, has been suspended from work after joining the public chorus of criticism against his employer for including Fury on the Award shortlist.
I’ll declare a small interest. I have also criticised the BBC for its decision, along with more than 150,000 people who’ve signed a petition asking it to reverse the move. It’s perverse and bizarre, in the 21st century, to nominate someone who speaks publicly in the way that Fury does for a prestigious award with the word “personality” in the title, however skilled he is at hitting other boxers.
But that’s not my main concern here – I accept that there are good arguments on all sides and that two very complex debates (sport v politics, free speech v public safety) come into play here.
My main interest today is: how can employers best show good leadership skills when team members criticise them on questions of policy?
I don’t know Mr West and I’m not privy to the details of his suspension. I construe, from what has been reported, that his bosses at the BBC think that it is unacceptable to have him say, strongly and in public, that he feels they have got this decision wrong. They perhaps feel that public unity and a commitment to team decisions are critical elements in team dynamics and in solid operations. The vast majority of businesses are not like, say, political parties, where we expect to find a degree of disagreement amongst staff, and even (quite commonly within the main parties last week) contradictory public statements on policies.
It *is* part of good business leadership to ensure that your team is behind you; to expect your team members to defend the organisation in the face of adversity; and to expect a contribution to the impression of a “united front”.
But it’s *also* part of good business leadership to foster a culture of respect and healthy debate, especially about moral issues, and especially when you are a public or quasi-public business. The Fury debate is a finely-balanced question and there are bound to be strong feelings on both sides. If an organisation goes round demanding absolute adherence to every fine question of policy *or else*, it will rapidly run out of road. It is not good leadership to be heavy-handed with those who feel strongly about moral and personal issues. On the contrary, they should be celebrated for their commitment to engendering discussion and dialectic.
If your staff disagree with you – a genuine disagreement about policy, especially if the source of the disagreement is a moral belief – then you should encourage and foster a long discussion across the team; make clear that you welcome all genuine viewpoints, and will consider your position carefully and continually; and ensure that all voices are heard equally. These are the actions of leaders with integrity and respect.
You should not seek to close off the discussion, threaten repercussions for those who don’t fall into line, or suspend people who are left to square their consciences with the “wrong” decision. That will come across as petty bullying.
The BBC should, in my view, reinstate Mr West immediately.