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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

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by Michael A. Roberto

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Make better decisions! Michael A. Roberto will help you achieve deeper consensus, get past groupthink and "yes men," and achieve superior results in every decision you make -- especially your most complex and highest-stakes decisions! Roberto's Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer, Second Edition gives you a powerful framework for promoting


Make better decisions! Michael A. Roberto will help you achieve deeper consensus, get past groupthink and "yes men," and achieve superior results in every decision you make -- especially your most complex and highest-stakes decisions! Roberto's Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer, Second Edition gives you a powerful framework for promoting honest, constructive dissent and skepticism; test your assumptions; more thoroughly and fairly considering "best alternatives"; crisply coming to closure; and aligning your entire organization behind the decision you make.


In this new edition, Roberto presents new cases from Google, Ford, and Intuit, and expands coverage to more deeply illuminate his decision-making approach. Offering both positive and negative examples, he presents a well rounded view of how to determine when 'yes' means 'yes', when it doesn't, and what to do when it doesn't. Throughout, Roberto demonstrates why "good process entails the astute management of the social, political and emotional aspects of decision making" -- in other words, why effective leaders are well served by carefully "deciding how to decide." You'll learn how to: 

  • Test and probe what your team really believes, and get the truth and candor you really need
  • Encourage constructive objections -- and keep them constructive
  • Improve team management, mitigate risk, identify opportunities, and promote integrity
  • Build stronger commitment amongst the people who'll implement your decisions

Editorial Reviews

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Leaders hear "yes" far too often. They don't hear bad news until it's too late. They get groupthink, not reality. They think they've achieved consensus, then find their decisions undermined by colleagues who never really bought in. It's an enormous problem: for leaders, teams and organizations. But is it inevitable? No.
In Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer, Harvard Business School's Michael Roberto shows readers how to stimulate honest, constructive dissent; use it to improve decisions; then align their entire organization behind those decisions. Drawing on extensive research, Roberto shows how to promote candor, leverage an organization's wisdom, and build consensus that leads to effective action. He also presents examples from history while exploring how real organizations make real decisions, as well as how the decision process unfolds throughout the organization - not just in the executive suite. Along the way, the five myths of executive decision making are explored to help readers understand why these myths are so dangerous and how they can be overcome.

The Leadership Challenge
In February 2003, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated while returning to Earth. In 1996, two of the world's most accomplished mountaineers and three of their clients died on Mount Everest's slopes during the deadliest day in the mountain's history. In 1961, Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs with U.S. support, and Castro's military captured or killed nearly all of them.

Catastrophic failure always brings forth troubling questions. Why didn't NASA managers act when they discovered a potentially serious danger? Why did the mountaineers ignore their own safety rules? Why did JFK support a rebel invasion despite clear evidence it would fail?

We want to learn from others' mistakes. But our misconceptions about decision making make it difficult to learn the right lessons. We envision a leader or team members sitting in a room making a fateful decision. We rush to fault their analysis, question their acumen, and doubt their motives. Yet, when it comes to strategic decision making, these differences seldom distinguish success from failure.

Strategic decision making is a dynamic process that unfolds over time, in fits and starts, and flows across multiple levels of an organization. Social, political and emotional forces play an enormous role. While cognitive decision-making tasks may prove challenging for many leaders, the socio-emotional component is often their Achilles heel.

Decision Quality and Implementation Effectiveness
Leaders must select the right action and mobilize the organization to implement it effectively. Thus, success is a function of both decision quality and implementation effectiveness. A leader's ability to navigate through the personality clashes, politics and social pressures of the decision process often determines both of these.

Few managers have mastered these dynamics. Consider the dialogue within many organizations: Candor, conflict and debate are often conspicuously absent during decision making. Managers feel uncomfortable dissenting. Groups converge quickly on one solution. Critical assumptions remain untested. Creative alternatives never surface. Leaders hear "yes" too often, or hear nothing when people mean "no." Their organizations don't just make poor choices: They may leave unethical choices unchallenged.

Of course, conflict alone isn't enough: Leaders must also build consensus. Consensus doesn't mean unanimity on all facets of a decision. Nor does it mean surrendering leadership. It does mean people will cooperate in implementation, even if they're not fully satisfied with the decision.

Consensus requires strong commitment to the chosen action, and strong, shared understanding of its rationale. Commitment helps prevent opponents from derailing implementation. It promotes perseverance in the face of obstacles. Common understanding of the decision rationale helps individuals coordinate and act in the "spirit" of the decision. Conversely, commitment without deep understanding can amount to "blind devotion." Individuals may dedicate themselves to implementation, but work at cross-purposes because they understand the decision differently.

Unfortunately, if executives engage in vigorous debate during the decision process, people may walk away dissatisfied with the outcome, disgruntled with colleagues, and less dedicated to implementation. The goal of leaders must be to foster conflict to enhance decision quality while simultaneously building the consensus needed for effective implementation. Copyright © 2006 Soundview Executive Book Summaries
—Soundview Review

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After 86 years of anguish and heartache, the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series. Just two months later, the team's talented, young general manager, Theo Epstein, chose not to match the New York Mets' four-year $50+ million guaranteed contract offer to star pitcher Pedro Martinez. The decision received mixed reactions from the fans in Boston and New York. Red Sox fans recognized that the pitcher's skills had begun to erode, but still, they believed that it would be difficult to find someone of comparable ability to replace Martinez. Mets fans heralded the arrival of a new star to lead their beleaguered pitching staff, but they wondered whether Mets general manager Omar Minaya overpaid for an aging and injury-prone ballplayer. The debate rages on: Did Epstein and Minaya make good decisions?

At this moment, before any games have been played in 2005, no one knows for certain whether the leaders of these two teams made sound decisions. To judge them fairly, we must await the results of the upcoming season as well as several campaigns to follow. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, fans and sportswriters can evaluate the merits of choosing to sign or not sign Martinez to such a lucrative, long-term contract. We will hold the two general managers to account for the outcomes that the teams achieve, and people will debate how much these specific decisions affected the teams' performance.

In all types of organizations—from sports franchises to business enterprises to public institutions—leaders often must wait a long time to see the results of the decisions that they make. Should they judge all decisions simply based on the outcomes that their organizations achieve? In this book, I argue that leaders need not wait for the results to measure their decision-making effectiveness. Instead, leaders ought to take a hard look at the process that they are employing to make critical choices. Outcomes cannot be measured for months or perhaps years. The decision process can be evaluated in real time, as the choice is being made. Epstein and Minaya cannot control fully the outcomes that their teams achieve in the years ahead. Yet, in here and now, they can shape and influence the nature of the decision processes that their organizations employ. In so doing, the general managers can raise or lower the odds that they and their management teams can make sound choices.

Think for a moment about a decision that you and your team or organization is currently trying to make. Have you considered multiple alternatives? Have you surfaced and tested your assumptions carefully? Did dissenting views emerge during your deliberations, and have you given those ideas proper consideration? Are you building high levels of commitment and shared understanding among those who will be responsible for implementing the decision? The answers to these questions—and a number of others—help us to evaluate the quality of an organization's decision-making process. The core premise of this book is that a high-quality process tends to enhance the probability of achieving positive outcomes. Therefore, a leader can have an enormous impact through his management of an organization's decision-making processes. Good process does not simply mean sound analytics (i.e., the best use of the latest strategy framework or quantitative financial evaluation technique). Good process entails the astute management of the social, political, and emotional aspects of decision making as well. Decision making in complex organizations is far from a purely intellectual exercise, as most experienced managers know. Thus, an effective leader does not just produce positive results by weighing in on the content of critical choices in a wise and thoughtful manner; he also has a substantial impact by shaping and influencing how those decisions are made.

In this book, I make two fundamental arguments with regard to how leaders can enhance the quality of their decision-making processes. First, leaders must cultivate constructive conflict so as to enhance the level of critical and divergent thinking, while simultaneously building consensus so as to facilitate the timely and efficient implementation of the choices that they make. Managing the tension between conflict and consensus represents one of the most fundamental challenges of leadership. By consensus, I do not mean unanimity, like-mindedness, or even pervasive agreement. Instead, I define consensus to mean a high level of commitment and shared understanding among the people involved in the decision. Leaders can build buy-in and collective comprehension without appeasing everyone on their teams or making decisions by majority vote. This book explains how leaders can do that.

The second fundamental argument put forth in this book is that effective leaders can and should spend time "deciding how to decide." In short, creating high-quality decision-making processes necessitates a good deal of forethought. When faced with a complex and pressing issue, most of us want to dive right in to solve the problem. Given our expertise in a particular field, we have a strong desire to apply our knowledge and devise an optimal solution. However, leadership does not entail a single-minded focus on the content of the decisions that we face. It also involves some thought regarding how a group or organization should go about making a critical choice. Deciding how to decide involves an assessment of who should be involved in the deliberations, what type of interpersonal climate we would like to foster, how individuals should communicate with one another, and the extent and type of control that the leader will exert during the process. In this book, you see that leaders have a number of levers that they can employ to design more effective decision-making processes and to shape how they unfold over time. I argue that leaders should be directive when it comes to influencing the way in which decisions are made in their groups or organizations, without trying to dominate or micromanage the substance of the discussion and evaluation that takes place. Spending time deciding how to decide enhances the probability of managing conflict and consensus effectively.

This book offers practical guidance—grounded in extensive academic research—for leaders who want to improve the way that they make complex, high-stakes choices. One need not be a general manager or chief executive officer to benefit from the concepts described here. Any leader of a group of people—no matter the level in the organization—can apply the ideas examined in this book. Scholars and students too can benefit from this book, because it offers new conceptual frameworks about organizational decision making, integrates existing theory in novel ways, and introduces a set of rich case studies that illuminate interesting issues with relevance to both theory and practice.

The Research

The research for this book began in July 1996. It involved several major field research projects as well as the development of numerous case studies. The first major piece of research for this book involved a 2-year study of decision making in the aerospace/defense industry. I conducted an exhaustive examination of 10 strategic choices made by 3 subsidiaries of a leading firm in that market. The research involved well over 100 hours of interviews with managers in those businesses, 2 rounds of surveys, an extensive review of archival documents, and direct observations of meetings. By immersing myself in these organizations, I became intimately familiar with how these executives managed conflict and consensus more or less effectively. This book contains many examples from this body of research, although one should note that names of individuals and firms have been disguised for confidentiality reasons.

The second body of research for this book involved a survey of 78 business unit presidents across different firms listed in the April 2000 edition of the Fortune 500. Whereas the prior field research had enabled me to gather extensive amounts of qualitative data regarding a few senior management teams and a small set of strategic decision processes, this large sample survey-based study provided an opportunity to identify patterns in decision making across many firms.

The third major research project comprised in-depth interviews with 35 general managers of firms or business units in the Boston area across many different industries. In each interview, I asked the managers to compare two decisions that they had made—one that they considered successful and another that they did not. The study enabled me to focus very closely on how leaders thought about process choices that they had made as they were making critical decisions.

Finally, the research involved numerous case studies of particular decisions and organizations. A distinguishing feature of this research is that it includes cases from many disparate settings, not just business enterprises. I have examined decision making by mountain-climbing expeditions, firefighting teams, NASA managers and engineers, government policy makers, and various nonprofit institutions. The varied nature of these studies has enabled me to develop a rich understanding of how leaders and organizations make decisions in different settings and circumstances.

Two case studies deserve special mention here, because my colleagues and I spent an extraordinary amount of time examining those situations, using novel techniques both for gathering the data and presenting the ideas to students. David Garvin and I conducted an in-depth study of Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The case, which we impart to students in multimedia format, proves distinctive because we tracked his turnaround of the organization in real time from the moment he took over as the chief executive. We interviewed him on video every two to four weeks during his first six months on the job, examined internal memos and e-mail communications between him and his staff, and tracked media coverage of the turnaround. This unique study gave us an up-close look at how a leader made decisions during a radical change effort, as well as how he altered the rather dysfunctional culture of decision making that existed in the hospital at the time.

The second case study that merits specific mention involves an examination of decision making at NASA as it pertains to the Columbia space shuttle accident in 2003. Amy Edmondson, Richard Bohmer, and I have studied this incident in detail, both through an exhaustive examination of the internal e-mails, meeting transcripts, memos, and presentations that were made public after the accident as well as through interviews with members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, a former shuttle astronaut, an ex-NASA engineer, and an expert on the 1986 Challenger accident. That study, which we also present to students in multimedia format, proves distinctive because we have documented critical events during the final mission from the perspective of six key managers and engineers. By trying to understand the decision making that took place from the vantage point of people at different levels and in disparate units of the organization, we have gained some unique insights into how and why certain choices were made.

Taken together, this extensive body of research provides the foundation for this book. This work employs a variety of research methodologies and draws upon several academic disciplines. Throughout this book, I also draw on existing theory developed by other scholars and cite the findings from empirical research conducted by others. Again, those theories and studies come in many different flavors; the book does not restrict itself to one particular academic domain in trying to explain how and why organizations and their leaders make decisions more or less effectively. This analysis aspires to be truly cross-disciplinary.

The Outline of This Book

This book is divided into four broad parts. Part I introduces a conceptual framework for thinking about how to diagnose, evaluate, and improve strategic decision-making processes. Chapter 1, "The Leadership Challenge," explains why leaders should cultivate conflict and consensus simultaneously as well as why they typically find it very difficult to achieve this objective. Chapter 2, "Deciding How to Decide," describes the implicit and explicit choices that leaders make to shape and influence how the decision process unfolds. Through these process choices, leaders can create the conditions that enable them to manage conflict and consensus in a constructive manner.

Part II—encompassing Chapter 3, "An Absence of Candor," Chapter 4, "Stimulating the Clash of Ideas," and Chapter 5, "Keeping Conflict Constructive"—focuses on the task of managing conflict. Chapter 3 describes the factors that inhibit candid dialogue and debate in organizations. It distinguishes between "hard" and "soft" barriers that block the discussion of dissenting views. "Hard" barriers consist of structural aspects of the organization such as the demographic composition of the senior management team, the complexity of reporting relationships, and ambiguity in job/role definitions. The "soft" barriers comprise things such as differences in status, the language system used to discuss failures in the organization, and certain taken-for-granted assumptions about how people should behave. Chapter 4 explains how leaders can stimulate heightened levels of conflict in their firms. It describes a variety of mechanisms and practices that leaders can choose to employ, and it describes the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Chapter 5 tackles the perplexing challenge of how leaders can encourage people to "disagree without being disagreeable." This chapter offers a useful set of tools and strategies for how leaders can keep conflict constructive.

Part III concentrates on how managers create consensus within their organizations without compromising the level of divergent and creative thinking. Chapter 6, "The Dynamics of Indecision," examines why some organizations become paralyzed by indecision. We learn why leaders often find it difficult to build commitment and shared understanding, or why sometimes they find themselves with a "false consensus" that unravels rather quickly when they try to execute a chosen course of action. Chapter 7, "Fair and Legitimate Process," focuses on two critical building blocks of consensus: procedural fairness and legitimacy. It explains how leaders can create processes in which people will cooperate effectively in the implementation effort even if they do not agree with the final decision. Chapter 8, "Reaching Closure," addresses how leaders can move to closure during a contentious set of deliberations. It describes how leaders manage the interplay between divergent and convergent thinking so as to bring a decision process to its conclusion in a timely fashion. Specifically, the chapter outlines a model of achieving closure through an approach of seeking "small wins" at various points during a complex and perhaps controversial decision-making process.

Part IV consists of Chapter 9, "Leading with Restraint," which reflects on how this book's philosophy of leadership and decision making differs from conventional views held by many managers. Specifically, I distinguish between two different approaches to "taking charge" when confronted with a difficult decision. The traditional approach puts the onus on leaders to provide the solutions to many of their organization's pressing problems. They need to "take charge" and act decisively. The alternative approach proposed here calls for leaders to take an active role shaping, influencing, and directing the process by which their organizations make high-stakes choices, without micromanaging the content of the decision. Effective leaders welcome others' input and acknowledge they do not have all the answers, but they still remain firmly in charge and retain the right and duty to make the final decision. However, they understand the importance of creating and leading an effective collective dialogue, in which others have a great deal of freedom to engage in a lively and vigorous debate about the issues and problems facing the organization. In short, this brand of take-charge leadership entails a disciplined focus on how choices are made, not simply what the organization should do.

At the conclusion of this book, detailed notes cite the research studies—mine and those of other scholars—that support the propositions and principles expounded in the main text. At times, the endnotes expand upon the ideas described in the main text, explain important caveats, or offer additional compelling examples of a particular phenomenon. My hope is that the endnotes offer useful guidance and direction for those scholars and practitioners who want to investigate certain topics in more depth.

Throughout this book, you will recognize a strong recurring theme—namely, that leaders must strive for a delicate balance of assertiveness and restraint. As you will see, the critical question for leaders becomes not whether they should be forceful and directive as they make strategic choices, but how they ought to exert their influence and control over the decision-making process. As you begin to read the pages that follow, I hope that you take time to reflect on past choices and to scrutinize the way in which you went about making those decisions. Moreover, I hope that you will consider experimenting with the techniques described here so as to not only enhance your probability of making sound choices, but also increase the likelihood that others will dedicate themselves enthusiastically to the execution of your plans.

© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Michael Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island. He has served on the faculty at Harvard Business School and as a visiting professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Over the past decade, Professor Roberto has held a position on the faculty of the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo, where he teaches an executive program each summer.


Professor Roberto’s previous book, Know What You Don’t Know (Pearson/Financial Times, 2009) addresses how leaders can become more effective problem finders. He has created two best-selling audio and video lecture series for The Great Courses ( The Art of Critical Decision Making , 2009, and Transformational Leadership , 2011). His articles have appeared in publications such as Harvard Business Review , MIT Sloan Management Review , and California Management Review.


Professor Roberto’s research and teaching have earned several major awards. The Everest Leadership and Team Simulation earned an MITX Interactive Award for Best E-Learning Solution in 2011. Columbia’s Final Mission , a multimedia case study about the 2003 space shuttle accident, garnered the software industry’s prestigious Codie Award in 2006. On the teaching front, Professor Roberto is a seven-time winner of the Outstanding MBA Teaching Award at Bryant University. He has been awarded Harvard’s Allyn Young Prize for Teaching in Economics on two occasions. Professor Roberto received an AB with honors from Harvard College, an MBA with High Distinction from Harvard Business School, and a doctorate from the Harvard Business School.


Professor Roberto lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Kristin, and his three children, Luke, Celia, and Grace.

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Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The two greatest strengths of Michael A. Roberto¿s book are its honesty and clarity. He admits that most people are uncomfortable with conflict and that many well-intentioned leaders shut down dissent. He¿s also honest about how likely it is that things will go wrong along the way, at least temporarily. Fortunately, he¿s also very clear about steps you can take to guide conflict in a productive direction, and why this matters. Roberto analyzes several well-known examples of bad decision making and shows how the absence of dissent or institutional mechanisms that insulated decision makers from essential - though not necessarily positive - information created serious problems. The list is long and chilling: President John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam, NASA and the Columbia shuttle explosion. His discussions will give you a powerful desire to review your organization¿s decision-making processes and, more generally, its culture. As Roberto himself readily admits, his techniques are not cure-alls, nor easy, but they will lead to improvements. We recommend this book to managers with decision-making responsibilities and to anyone who is committed to improving organizational functioning.
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