Home > Art, Management and Leadership > Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus

Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus

  • Author: Michael A. Roberto
  • Publisher:  Wharton School Publishing
  • Published: June, 2005
  • Pages: 304
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF

Harvard Business School’s Michael Roberto draws on powerful decision-making case studies from every walk of life, showing how to promote honest, constructive dissent and skepticism; use it to improve decisions; and align organizations behind those decisions.  Learn from disasters like the Space Shuttle Columbia and JFK’s Bay of Pigs Invasion,  from successes like Sid Caesar and Bill Parcells, from George W. Bush’s decision-making after 9/11. Roberto complements his compelling case studies with extensive new research on executive decisionmaking. Discover how to test and probe a management team; when ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and when it doesn’t; and how to build real consensus that leads to action. Gain important new insights into managing teams, mitigating risk, promoting corporate ethics, and much more.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this highly readable volume, Harvard Business School professor Roberto demonstrates that the key to making successful strategic business decisions lies in the decision-making process itself. Through nine refreshingly jargon-free chapters, along with helpful graphs and charts, Roberto argues that “good process entails the astute management of the social, political and emotional aspects of decision making.” Persuasively employing case studies-from an analysis of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster to the deadly 1996 accident atop Mount Everest to John F. Kennedy’s management the Cuban Missile Crisis-Roberto enlivens his primary thesis that failed leadership often fixates “on the question ‘What decision should I make?’ rather than asking ‘How should I go about making the decision?'” With each case study Roberto points out where the process went awry and nimbly indicates how the lessons learned can be applied to any business decision. He explains how to effectively make and implement a final decision and how to efficiently handle groupthink, “yes men” and those who offer nothing but negative criticisms. The book is aimed primarily at a business executive audience, and other readers may get lost. But managers who must lead a group through a plan of action will surely benefit from Roberto’s process-centered approach. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From the Back Cover

Harvard Business School’s Michael Roberto draws on powerful decision-making case studies from every walk of life, showing how to promote honest, constructive dissent and skepticism; use it to improve decisions; and align organizations behind those decisions.  Learn from disasters like the Space Shuttle Columbia and JFK’s Bay of Pigs Invasion,  from successes like Sid Caesar and Bill Parcells, from George W. Bush’s decision-making after 9/11. Roberto complements his compelling case studies with extensive new research on executive decisionmaking. Discover how to test and probe a management team; when ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and when it doesn’t; and how to build real consensus that leads to action. Gain important new insights into managing teams, mitigating risk, promoting corporate ethics, and much more.

About the Author

Michael A. Roberto is a faculty member at the Harvard Business School. He teaches courses on general management, managerial decision making, and business strategy. Professor Roberto’s research focuses on strategic decision-making processes and senior management teams. Recently, he has studied why catastrophic group or organizational failures happen, such as the Columbia space shuttle accident and the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy.

Professor Roberto’s work has been published in the Harvard Business Review, California Management Review, and The Leadership Quarterly.

He has taught in the leadership development programs at a number of organizations including Morgan Stanley, Mars, The Home Depot, Novartis, and The World Bank. He has also consulted with organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Corporate Executive Board, and The Advisory Board.

Professor Roberto earned an M.B.A. with High Distinction and a doctorate from the Harvard Business School. While pursuing graduate studies at Harvard, he taught the introductory undergraduate course in economic theory, twice winning Harvard’s Allyn Young Prize for Teaching in Economics.

He lives in Holliston, Massachusetts with his wife, Kristin, and his two daughters, Grace and Celia. © Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

Most helpful reviews

Great information on how to make great decisions…

By Thomas Duff

I received an advance copy of an interesting book a week or two ago… Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer: Managing For Conflict And Consensus by Michael A. Roberto (Wharton School Publishing). It’s an insightful book on how to effectively promote a culture of open decision-making.

Chapter List:

Part 1 – Leading The Decision Process: The Leadership Challenge; Deciding How To Decide

Part 2 – Managing Conflict: An Absence Of Candor; Stimulating The Clash Of Ideas; Keeping Conflict Constructive

Part 3 – Building Consensus: The Dynamics Of Indecision; Fair And Legitimate Process; Reaching Closure

Part 4 – A New Breed Of Take-Charge Leader: Leading With Restraint

Endnotes; Index

In our results-oriented and media-driven society, nearly all decisions made by an organization (be it corporate or government) are analyzed by whether they worked or not. This leads to the focus on trying to choose the “right outcome”. Roberto takes a different tack, and focuses more on how to form the right environment to allow good decisions to be made. Using examples such as the Bay Of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Columbia space shuttle accident, he analyzes how the environment surrounding the decisions led to outcomes that varied greatly in their effectiveness. Roberto advocates a consensus style of decision making, where all issues are openly discussed and debated without politics and position flavoring who can advance what ideas. Easier said than done, however. Through either forceful personality or complete abdication of responsibility, too many important decisions are hamstrung by lack of input due to fear or intimidation. Using the techniques in this book, a leader can learn how to effectively structure the group to get the type of free-flowing information exchange that ensures all information is available prior to a choice being made.

The author also realizes and accurately points out that there are different types of leadership techniques that have to be employed at different times with various groups. There are times where s/he might have to remove themselves from the initial discussions to make sure their personality doesn’t overpower the flavor of the debate. Other times it might be necessary to be very active to be sure that all the groups who have the important information are heard regardless of their position or rank. It’s a fine line to walk, but one in which the resulting decisions will be of a much higher quality and outcome.

Regardless of whether you’re a CEO or a supervisor, the techniques and framework discussed here will help you to be a more effective leader in these times of ever-changing environments. Definitely a recommended read.

A Pernicious and Perennial Problem

By Craig L. Howe

Last fall, following 86 years of heartache, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. Two months later, Theo Epstein, the team’s general manager, opted not to met a $50 million dollar offer from Omar Minaya, the new general manager of the New York Mets to star pitcher Pedro Martinez, considered by many to be the heart and sole of his team.

Mets fans were ecstatic; Red Sox fans expressed mixed emotions. Martinez’s skills clearly had begun to erode; yet it would be next to impossible to replace his battling determination.

It will be years before anyone can clearly assess which general manager made the correct decision.

Michael Roberto, a Harvard Business School faculty member, in this insightful book argues Minaya and Epstein are not alone. In all types of organizations, leaders often have to wait long time periods to see the results of their decisions. The core premise of his book is that a quality process enhances the probability of achieving a positive outcome.

A quality process, according to the author involves more than sound analytics. It involves the astute management of the emotional, political and social aspects of decision making. To wit:

  • Have you considered multiple alternatives?
  • Have you surfaced and tested your assumptions?
  • Did dissenting views emerge during your deliberations?
  • Are you building high levels of commitment and shared understanding?

Roberto argues and then demonstrates how leaders cultivate constructive conflict to enhance critical and divergent thinking. This means managing the tension between conflict and consensus. Secondly, he argues leaders need to spend time “deciding how to decide.” High-quality processes require forethought. Ensure your desire for a solution to a critical and complex problem employs more than a single-minded solution. Time spent “deciding how to decide” will increase the possibility of walking the fine line between conflict and consensus.

As for the Mets and the Red Sox, my vote goes with Theo Epstein. I am a Yankee fan. I was thrilled to see a great pitcher head for the other league.

Extremely Sharp Look Into Conflict as the Basis of Effective Leadership

By Ed Uyeshima

The value placed on conformity within companies has been the traditional norm, though it is almost subliminally stated in passive language that emphasizes adhering to a certain set of corporate values. Take a look at a film like Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” if you want historical validation of this perspective or even this year’s piercing documentary, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”, if you want a more current example. In direct contrast and in a most refreshing manner, Michael A. Roberto, a Harvard Business School professor, describes the toll on organizations when leaders fail to create an atmosphere that invites dissent. In compelling examples ranging from the Cuban missile crisis to the Columbia space shuttle tragedy, he clearly outlines concrete steps that managers at all levels can take to spark positive conflict and make sure that all views get a fair hearing. Moreover, Roberto outlines a fair and open process for making more effective decisions.

It is not too surprising how pervasive a “no” organization exists in today’s economy given the conservative measures taken by leadership to maintain their power base and wealth. Such companies do not employ dissenting voices as a means of encouraging divergent thinking. Instead, they enable those who disagree with a proposal to shut off dialogue and discourage interesting avenues of inquiry. Such cultures do not provide an incentive for dissenters to defend their views with data and logic or even more importantly, explain how their objections are consistent with organization-wide goals as opposed to the interests of their more immediate divisions. As Enron proved, a culture of “no” enables those with the most power or the loudest voice to impose their will. Roberto points out that the first barrier leaders need to recognize is that expressing dissent can be very difficult and uncomfortable for lower-level managers and employees. Consequently, rather than waiting for dissent to come to them, leaders need to actively seek it out in their organizations. Searching for constructive dissidents remains at odds with the existence of passive leadership since by its nature, it constitutes a substantial barrier to candid dialogue and debate within organizations.

Analysis paralysis can fossilize a company more focused on improving quarterly results. Nearly all decisions made by an organization are analyzed by whether they worked or not, which redirects the focus to one of trying to choose the “right outcome“. As an alternative, Roberto focuses on how to form the right environment to allow good decisions to be made. For example, the role of Morton Thiokol in the Columbia space shuttle accident shows how the environment surrounding key decisions led to outcomes that varied greatly in their effectiveness. Roberto advocates a consensus style of decision making where all issues are openly discussed and debated without worry of political ramifications. As most of us know who have struggled in a corporate environment, implementation of such practices can be onerous. Whether through either forceful personality or complete abdication of responsibility, too many important decisions are hamstrung by lack of input due to fear or intimidation.

Roberto’s techniques really show how a leader can learn to structure an organization to get the type of free-flowing information exchange that ensures all information is available prior to a choice being made. Leaders can and should take concrete steps to build conflict into their decision-making processes. Roberto has some excellent tips for moving in this direction, for example, asking a set of managers to role-play the firm’s competitors in a series of meetings so as to surface and test a set of core strategic assumptions. Another good one is assigning someone to play the devil’s advocate so as to ensure that a thorough critique and risk assessment of a proposal has been conducted before moving forward. By inducing vigorous and open debate, leaders avoid the guessing game of trying to discern whether or not people truly agree with a choice that has been made.

The author also realizes and accurately points out that there are different types of leadership techniques that have to be employed at different times with various groups. It’s a fine line for leaders to gauge their participation effectively but one in which the resulting decisions will be of a much higher quality and outcome. When leaders are successful in establishing a climate of openness, and they make constructive conflict a habit in the organization, such behaviors will need to be sustained over time. Conflict becomes a fundamental element of a firm’s strategic planning process, and the process continues to retain the same atmosphere of vigorous debate. Roberto illuminates how the most effective leaders have to teach the attributes of good process, model those attributes, and coach future leaders in their implementation.

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