Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer

By Michael Roberto, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School

Many executives can run the numbers, or analyze the economic structure of an industry; a precious few can master the social and political dynamic of decision-making. Consider the nature and quality of dialogue within many organizations. Candor, conflict, and debate appear conspicuously absent during their decision-making processes.

Managers feel uncomfortable expressing dissent, groups converge quickly on a particular solution, and individuals assume that unanimity exists when, in fact, it does not. As a result, critical assumptions remain untested, and creative alternatives do not surface or receive adequate attention. In all too many cases, the problem begins with the person directing the process, as their words and deeds discourage a vigorous exchange of views.

Powerful, popular, and highly successful leaders hear "yes" much too often, or they simply hear nothing when people really mean "no." In those situations, organizations may not only make poor choices, but they may find that unethical choices remain unchallenged. As Business Week declared in its special issue on corporate governance, "The best insurance against crossing the ethical divide is a roomful of skeptics… By advocating dissent, top executives can create a climate where wrongdoing will not go unchallenged."i

Of course, conflict alone does not lead to better decisions. Leaders also need to build consensus in their organizations. Consensus, as we shall define it here, does not mean unanimity, widespread agreement on all facets of a decision, or complete approval by a majority of organization members. It does not mean that teams, rather than leaders, make decisions. Consensus does mean that people have agreed to cooperate in the implementation of a decision. They have accepted the final choice, though they may not be completely satisfied with it. Consensus has two critical components: a high level of commitment to the chosen course of action and a strong, shared understanding of the rationale for the decision. ii Commitment helps to prevent the implementation process from becoming derailed by organizational units or individuals who object to the selected course of action.

Moreover, commitment may promote management perseverance in the face of other kinds of implementation obstacles, while encouraging individuals to think creatively and innovatively about how to overcome those obstacles. Common understanding of the decision rationale allows individuals to coordinate their actions effectively, and it enhances the likelihood that everyone will act in a manner that is "consistent with the spirit of the decision." iii Naturally, consensus does not insure effective implementation, but it enhances the likelihood that managers can work together effectively to overcome obstacles that arise during decision execution.

Commitment without deep understanding can amount to "blind devotion" on the part of a group of managers. Individuals may accept a call to action and dedicate themselves to the implementation of a particular plan, but they take action based upon differing interpretations of the decision. Managers may find themselves working at cross-purposes, not because they wish to derail the decision, but because they perceive goals and priorities differently than their colleagues. When leaders articulate a decision, they hope that subordinates understand the core intent of the decision, because people undoubtedly will encounter moments of ambiguity as they execute the plan of action.

During these uncertain situations, managers will need to make choices without taking the time to consult the leader or all other colleagues. Managers also may need to improvise a bit to solve problems or capitalize on opportunities that may arise during the implementation process. A leader cannot micromanage the execution of a decision; she needs people throughout the organization to be capable of making adjustments and trade-offs as obstacles arise; shared understanding promotes that type of coordinated, independent action.

Shared understanding without commitment leads to problems as well. Implementation performance will suffer if managers comprehend goals and priorities very clearly, but they harbor doubts about the wisdom of the choice that has been made. Execution also lags if people do not engage and invest emotionally in the process. Managers need to not only comprehend their required contribution to the implementation effort, they must be willing to "go the extra mile" to solve difficult problems and overcome unexpected hurdles that arise.iv

Unfortunately, if executives engage in vigorous debate during the decision process, people may walk away dissatisfied with the outcome, disgruntled with their colleagues, and not fully dedicated to the implementation effort. Conflict may diminish consensus, and thereby hinder the execution of a chosen course of action, as Figure 1-1 illustrates. Herein lies a fundamental dilemma for leaders: How does one foster conflict and dissent to enhance decision quality while simultaneously building the consensus required to implement decisions effectively? In short, how does one achieve "diversity in counsel, unity in command?" The purpose of this book is to help leaders tackle this daunting challenge.

Of course, dissent does not always prove to be productive; cultivating conflict has its risks. To understand the perils, we must distinguish between two forms of conflict. Suppose that you ask your management team to compare and contrast two alternative courses of action. Individuals may engage in substantive debate over issues and ideas, which we refer to as cognitive, or task-oriented, conflict. This form of disagreement exposes each proposal's risks and weaknesses, challenges the validity of key assumptions, and even might encourage people to define the problem or opportunity confronting the firm in an entirely different light. For these reasons, cognitive conflict tends to enhance the quality of the solutions that groups produce. As former Intel CEO Andrew Grove once wrote, "Debates are like the process through which a photographer sharpens the contrast when developing a print. The clearer images that result permit management to make a more informed - and more likely correct - call."v

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