Two senior leaders in an organisation disagree in public: a divided organisation or healthy debate?

A few years ago a senior colleague within BHT took strong exception to something I had blogged about life time tenancies. He said I shouldn’t have done so without agreeing a BHT line. I said BHT didn’t have line on the issue, nor should it as it was an ethical issue with a range of opinions.

It raised an interesting principle: can people in an organisation, especially senior leaders, take different views in public. Why not, I ask.

Just last week my colleague, Jo Rogers, who runs the South East Fulfilling Lives Project, popped into my office. I asked how she was. “Well I was fine”, she said, “until I read your blog about Housing First!”

She wasn’t happy, and I understand why. She is involved in a Housing First initiative in Eastbourne! She has written a very robust response to the doubts I had expressed. Have a read of both, and please feel free to leave your own views.

For the record, Jo is an extraordinary manager and leader, someone with enormous integrity and vision, a real asset to BHT and the Fulfilling Lives programme, and a very valuable colleague. What is more, she is one of the few members of our management team who laughs at my feeble jokes!

The purpose of this post is not to discuss the pros and cons of Housing First. It is to explore whether and how people in organisations can debate, even disagree, in public.

The first principle is nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. Just because I might have a certain job title doesn’t mean I am infallible. Far from it. I need colleagues and others to point out the errors of my way. I have countless examples of what I have learned from colleagues and, equally, clients.

The second principle is how you debate. If a view is put forward, which might be at odds with conventional wisdom, as long as it is not abusive or discriminatory, should be listened to with respect. By all means disagree. The worst thing that can happen with a robust exchange of views is that minds might be changed and a deeper understanding might emerge. Wouldn’t it be great if most political discourse was less oppositional?

The third principle concerns attributable comments. Yes, whatever I say can be attributed to me, but not necessarily to BHT. A few years ago I temporarily changed my Twitter biography to say that the views expressed were almost certainly not the views of BHT but that all references to Stoke City Football Club were official BHT policy.

Of course that was a nonsense. Yes, very often I do speak on behalf of the organisation, as is appropriate. On other occasions I express strong personal opinions, and have been known to express affection for the Mighty Potters (Stoke City FC).

What I am not always clear about, and this can cause problems, is to be clear whether the views being expressed are BHT policy.

I might have a senior position within BHT, but BHT is mature and strong enough as an organisation to allow me, and others, to speak freely, within reason. I think it was fine to express doubts about Housing First, for example. It would have been another thing to say anyone involved in Housing First was doing the work of the devil! And it is absolutely fine for Jo Rogers to say, as she has and in public, that she thinks I am mistaken. It would be another thing for her to say I was lying, deceitful and dishonourable individual.

Long may we have lively and healthy debate, long may Jo Rogers disagree with me, long may we value each other’s integrity, and long may we agree on most things, as I believe we do.

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