by Michael A. Roberto

Book Excerpt from Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Deciding How to Decide

Nov 01, 200515 mins
Business IT AlignmentIT Leadership

Yes-men are widely scorned. Yet entire organizations often do no better at examining all sides of a problem, raising potential shortcomings of a proposed solution or suggesting alternatives, says Michael Roberto, assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Groupthink, deference to authority and fear of being embarrassed can lead managers—even experienced CXOs—to say yes to bad decisions. In Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus, Roberto shows why and how companies should stimulate constructive debate. By deciding how to decide, CIOs and other executives can make better decisions, build a real consensus for action, and understand the difference between a bad yes and a good yes.

How many of you have censored your views during a management meeting? Have you offered a polite nod of approval as your boss or a respected colleague puts forth a proposal, while privately harboring serious doubts? Have you immediately begun to devise ways to alter or reverse the decision at a later date?

If you have answered yes to these questions, be comforted by the fact that you are not alone. Many groups and organizations shy away from vigorous conflict and debate. For starters, managers often feel uncomfortable expressing dissent in the presence of a powerful, popular and highly successful chief executive. It becomes difficult to be candid when the boss’s presence dominates the room. We also find ourselves deferring to the technical experts in many instances, rather than challenging the pronouncements of company or industry veterans.

Certain deeply held assumptions about customers, markets and competition can become so ingrained in people’s thought processes that an entire industry finds itself blindly accepting the prevailing conventional wisdom. Pressures for conformity also arise because cohesive, relatively homogenous groups of like-minded people have worked with one another for a long time. Finally, some leaders engage in conflict avoidance because they do not feel comfortable with confrontation in a public setting. Whatever the reasons—and they are bountiful—the absence of healthy debate and dissent frequently leads to faulty decisions.

The Perils of Conflict and Dissent

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 might even 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.”

Unfortunately, when differences of opinion emerge during a discussion, managers may find it difficult to reconcile divergent views. At times, people become wedded to their ideas, and they begin to react defensively to criticism. Deliberations become heated, emotions flare, and disagreements become personal. Scholars refer to these types of personality clashes and personal friction as affective conflict. When it surfaces, decision processes often derail.

Unfortunately, most leaders find it difficult to foster cognitive conflict without also stimulating interpersonal friction. The inability to disentangle the two forms of conflict has pernicious consequences. Affective conflict diminishes commitment to the choices that are made, and it disrupts the development of shared understanding. It also leads to costly delays in the decision process, meaning that organizations fail to make timely decisions, and they provide competitors with an opportunity to capture advantages in the marketplace.

Why Is This So Difficult?

Why is managing conflict and building consensus so challenging? The roots of the problem may reside in one’s style of leadership. Often, however, the difficulty reflects persistent patterns of dysfunction within groups and organizations. Let’s try to understand a few sources of difficulty that leaders must overcome as they shape and direct decision processes.

Leadership style. Leaders may have certain personal preferences and attributes that make it difficult to cultivate constructive conflict and/or build consensus within their organizations. For instance, some executives may be uncomfortable with confrontation, and therefore, they tend to avoid vigorous debates at all costs. They shy away from cognitive conflict because loud voices and sharp criticism simply make them uneasy. Others may be highly introverted, and consequently, they may discover that their employees find it difficult to discern their intentions as well as the rationale that they have employed to make decisions.

Some executives prefer to manage by fear and intimidation, and they enjoy imposing their will on organizations. That leadership style also squelches dissenting voices, and it can leave employees feeling unenthusiastic about a proposed plan of action that they did not help to formulate. Of course, a few extraordinary leaders foster enormous levels of commitment while employing this approach.

Consider, for instance, the management style of Bill Parcells, the famous professional football coach. He has dramatically turned around four very unsuccessful franchises over the past two decades, and his teams have won two world championships. He thrives on confrontation, instills a great deal of fear in his players, and makes decisions in a highly autocratic fashion. Yet, players put forth an incredible effort for Parcells, and they frequently express an intense desire to please him, despite the fact that he makes their lives difficult at times. In general, however, success often proves difficult to sustain over the long haul for those who employ this leadership pattern. Perhaps that explains why Parcells has chosen to shift frequently from one team to another during his coaching career.

Cognitive biases. A few mental traps also stand in the way as leaders try to manage conflict and consensus. For instance, most individuals search for information in a biased manner. They tend to downplay data that contradicts their existing views and beliefs, while emphasizing the information that supports their original conclusions. This confirmation bias explains why leaders may not aggressively seek to surface dissenting views, or why they may not listen carefully to those voices. Naturally, managers become frustrated if they perceive that leaders are processing information in a biased manner, and that disappointment can diminish buy-in. Overconfidence bias becomes a factor in many situations as well. Most of us tend to overestimate our own capabilities. Consequently, we may not recognize when we need to solicit input and advice from others, or we downplay the doubts that others display regarding our judgments and decisions.

Threat rigidity. In many cases, strategic decision making occurs in the context of a threatening situation—the organization must deal with poor financial performance, deteriorating competitive position and/or a dramatic shift in customer requirements. When faced with a threatening context, the psychological stress and anxiety may induce a rigid cognitive response on the part of individuals. People tend to draw upon deeply ingrained mental models of the environment that served them well in the past. Individuals also constrict their information-gathering efforts, and they revert to the comfort of well-learned practices and routines.

This cognitive rigidity impairs a leader’s ability to surface and discuss a wide range of dissenting views. To make matters worse, factors at the group and organizational level complement and reinforce this inflexible and dysfunctional response to threatening problems. Consequently, organizational decision processes become characterized by restricted information processing, a constrained search for solutions, a reduction in the breadth of participants, and increased reliance on formal communication procedures.

In-groups versus out-groups. As people work together throughout the decision process, they have a natural tendency to categorize other members of the groups in which they interact. They classify some people as similar to them (the in-group) and others as quite different based on a few salient demographic characteristics or professional attributes (the out-group). For instance, an engineer may distinguish those group members with similar functional backgrounds from individuals who have spent their careers working in finance or marketing. In general, people tend to perceive in-group members in a positive light and out-group members in a negative light. These perceptions shape the way that individuals interact with one another. Highly divisive categorization processes—those circumstances in which people draw sharp distinctions between in-groups and out-groups—can diminish social interaction among group members, impede information flows and foster interpersonal tensions.

Individuals also appraise other group members in terms of personal attributes such as intelligence, integrity and conscientiousness. Unfortunately, a person’s self-appraisal often does not match the view that others have. An individual may see himself as highly trustworthy, whereas others have serious doubts about whether he is reliable and dependable. When individuals tend to see themselves in a manner consistent with others’ views and perceptions, groups perform more effectively. If many perceptual disconnects exist within a group, people find it difficult to interact constructively. It becomes difficult to manage disputes and lead deliberations smoothly.

Organizational defensive routines. Organizations often develop mechanisms to bypass or minimize the embarrassment or threat that individuals might experience. Managers employ these defensive routines to preserve morale, make bad news a bit more palatable and soften the impact of negative feedback. They want people to remain upbeat and positive about the organization’s mission as well as their own situation. For instance, in many firms, we witness the existence of an implicit understanding of the need to employ a routine for helping employees to save face when they have failed. Unfortunately, such behaviors depress the level of candor within the organization, and they make certain issues “undiscussable.”

Over time, these defensive practices become deeply ingrained in the organizational culture. They do not occur because a specific individual wants to avoid embarrassing a colleague, but rather because all managers understand that this is “the way things are done around here.” Leaders often find it extremely difficult to dismantle these deeply embedded barriers to open and honest dialogue.

A Deeper Explanation

All the factors described previously certainly make it difficult to manage conflict and consensus effectively. The core contention of this book, however, is that many leaders fail to make and implement decisions successfully for a more fundamental reason—that is, they tend to focus first and foremost on finding the “right” solution when a problem arises, rather than stepping back to determine the “right” process that should be employed to make the decision. They fixate on the question, “What decision should I make?” rather than asking “How should I go about making the decision?” Answering this “how” question correctly often has a profound impact on a leader’s decision-making effectiveness. It enables leaders to create the conditions and mechanisms that will lead to healthy debate and dissent as well as a comprehensive and enduring consensus.

Naturally, leaders also must address the content of critical high-stakes decisions, not simply the processes of deliberation and analysis. They have to take a stand on the issues, and they must make difficult trade-offs in many cases. Moreover, creating and leading an effective decision-making process does not guarantee a successful choice and smooth implementation. However, developing and managing a high-quality decision-making process does greatly enhance the probability of successful choices and results.

What Type of Leaders?

Jim Collins, arguably the most widely read business writer in the world, conducted a study to determine how and why some companies move from a fairly long period of average financial performance to an era of sustained superior results. He found that only a small set of firms managed to make that leap, and their leaders possessed a distinct set of traits. According to Collins, the CEOs of those firms demonstrated great modesty and humility. They often proved quiet, reserved and even shy. Collins extols those virtues, and he argues that organizations should seek leaders with these attributes, rather than simply chasing individuals who exhibit charisma.

Tom Peters, another widely read business writer and consultant, disagrees vehemently. He thinks the current tumultuous business climate requires something quite different from the “stoic, quiet, claim leaders” that he hears Collins describe and extol. Peters exclaims, “Would you like to think that a quiet leader will lead you to the promised land? I think it’s total, utter bull, because I consider this to be a time of chaos.”

Effective leaders do take charge when confronted with difficult organizational decisions. However, there are two different approaches to taking charge. One kind of leader dives right into the problem, trying to find the best solution. This type of leader focuses on what to do to improve the organization’s performance. A second type of leader takes a step back and focuses at first on how the organization ought to go about tackling the problem. This leader asks the question: What kind of decision process should we employ? This is not to say that the leader does not have an opinion about what to do, but he does not focus exclusively on finding the right solution. Instead, he focuses first on trying to find the right process.

Consultant and researcher David Nadler has argued that many top executives do not distinguish between these two approaches to taking charge. They believe that working with others in a collaborative problem-solving fashion signifies a shift toward “letting the team manage and decide for itself.” Nadler tries to clarify this misconception. He believes that leaders can be directive about a decision-making process, while providing subordinates plenty of room to offer divergent perspectives regarding the content of the issue at hand.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy became more directive about the decision process. He made careful choices about composition, context, communication and control—the 4 C’s that together comprise how a leader decides how to decide. Kennedy considered how the deliberations should take place, what roles people should play in the process and how divergent views should be welcomed and heard. Yet he removed himself from several meetings. He resisted the temptation to micromanage all details of the situation. He offered his advisers some room to state their arguments, to debate one another and to revise their proposals based upon the critique of others. Kennedy still retained the right to make the final call, and he clearly did not strive for unanimous agreement before moving forward. The president took charge of the decision process, knowing that he would not lose authority or control by offering others an opportunity to express their views. No one perceived Kennedy as weak or indecisive because he stepped back to give others room to state their case before he declared his own views on the matter.

Top executives will demonstrate true decisive leadership when they think carefully about how they want to make tough choices, rather than by simply trying to jump to the right answer. By deciding how to decide, they increase the probability that they will effectively capitalize on the wide variety of capabilities and expertise in their organization and make a sound decision. Moreover, they enhance the odds of being able to implement the chosen course of action effectively.

Leading with Restraint

The brand of take-charge leadership called for in this book requires a great deal of restraint on the part of top executives. When faced with a complex problem, many executives will have a strong intuitive feeling about what to do based upon years of experience. That intuition will prove correct in many circumstances, but not all.

To make the most of the expertise and ideas that other members of their organizations possess, leaders need to refrain from pronouncing their solution to a problem before others have had an opportunity to offer their perspectives. They must acknowledge that they do not have all the answers, and that their initial intuition may not always be correct. They need to recognize that their behavior, particularly at the outset of a decision process, can encourage others to act in an overly deferential manner. Leaders must understand that the best choices mean very little if various, interdependent units of the organization are not willing to cooperate to execute the decision.

By leading with restraint, individuals in positions of authority recognize that their understanding and knowledge in a particular domain are often bounded, imprecise and incomplete. They do not begin to tackle a problem by seeking confirmation of their preexisting hypotheses, but instead recognize the existence of boundary conditions associated with each of their mental models (i.e., their theories may apply under certain conditions, but not in all circumstances). Restrained leaders implicitly presume that their understanding of a specific domain consists of a set of nascent theories, which may be disproved over time and about which reasonable people may disagree. Restrained leaders constantly search and explore for new knowledge, rather than seeking the data and opinions that confirm their preexisting understanding of the world around them.