Don’t Listen to “Yes”

It's essential for leaders to spark conflict in their organizations, as long as it is constructive. A Q&A with Professor Michael Roberto, author of the new book Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer.
by Martha Lagace

If people smile, nod, and say "yes" at your company, maybe it's time to start an argument. According to HBS professor Michael Roberto, the lack of good conflict—constructive conflict—within an organization makes it that much harder to accurately evaluate business ideas and make important decisions.

But conflict does not mean browbeating. In his new book, Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus (Wharton School Publishing), Roberto describes the toll on organizations when leaders fail to create an atmosphere that invites dissent. He then outlines concrete steps that managers at all levels can take to spark positive conflict and make sure that all views get a fair hearing, and he outlines as well a fair and open process for making more effective decisions.

"Keeping conflict constructive helps to build decision commitment, and therefore facilitates implementation," says Roberto, who teaches in the School's General Management unit. An e-mail interview with HBS Working Knowledge follows.

Martha Lagace: Why should a leader be concerned when he or she hears the answer "yes"?

Michael Roberto: Leaders need to recognize that expressing dissent can be very difficult and uncomfortable for lower-level managers and employees. Therefore, leaders cannot wait for dissent to come to them; they must actively go seek it out in their organizations. In short, they must search for people willing to say no to them. The mere existence of passive leadership constitutes a substantial barrier to candid dialogue and debate within organizations.

Leaders can and should take concrete steps to build conflict into their decision-making processes. For instance, they might ask 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. Or they might assign 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.

Q: In your book you discuss three cultures of indecision that typically appear in organizations: the cultures of yes, no, and maybe. How should a leader recognize his or her organizational culture and identify its barriers to decision making?

A: Indecision can cripple an organization, and it comes in several different forms. Lou Gerstner coined the phrase "culture of no" to describe the situation he inherited at IBM in the early 1990s. In this type of culture of indecision, dissenters essentially have veto power in the decision-making process, particularly if those individuals have power and status. The organization does not employ dissenting voices as a means of encouraging divergent thinking, but rather it enables those who disagree with a proposal to stifle dialogue and close off interesting avenues of inquiry. Such a culture does not force dissenters to defend their views with data and logic, or to explain how their objections are consistent with the organization-wide goals as opposed to the parochial interests of a particular division or subunit. A culture of no enables those with the most power or the loudest voice to impose their will.

Leaders need to develop and employ a variety of forums for encouraging people to express their views.

When Paul Levy embarked on a turnaround of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, he discovered a "culture of yes." Levy described the dynamics: "People will not tell the truth during meetings about how their department would react to a given proposal…. They will sit there quietly and you won't find out until a week later that they object to something…. This behavior had become standard practice. If you object to a proposal, you get quiet during the meeting. Then later, when you leave the room, you undercut the consensus that appeared to have emerged." Many organizations have similar patterns of behavior, and the tell-tale signs are quite similar to those described by Levy.

Finally, a "culture of maybe" exists when companies are highly analytical, yet also quite uncomfortable with ambiguity. They go to great lengths to gather more information and to perform additional formal analysis, in hopes of reducing the ambiguity associated with various options and contingencies. They strive for certainty in an inherently uncertain world—to turn every maybe into a simple yes or no. Indecision and a lack of closure result if managers cannot recognize the costs of trying to gather a more and more complete set of information.

Q: What are the guidelines you've identified for (1.) sparking constructive conflict; and (2.) devising a decision-making process that will be fair and effective?

A: To be effective, leaders need to ensure that conflict remains constructive. That is, they must stimulate task-oriented disagreement and debate while trying to minimize interpersonal conflict. Leaders can accomplish this by taking concrete steps before, during, and after a critical decision process.

Before the process begins, they can establish ground rules for how people should interact during the deliberations, clarify the role that each individual will play in the discussions, and build mutual respect, particularly with regard to differences in the cognitive styles of each team member.

During the deliberations, leaders can intervene in several ways when debates get heated. They might redirect people's attention and recast the situation in a different light, present ideas and data in novel ways so as to enhance understanding and spark new branches of discussion, and revisit basic facts and assumptions when the group appears to reach an impasse.

Finally, after a decision process ends, leaders should try to derive lessons learned regarding how to manage conflict constructively, and they must attend to hurt feelings and damaged relationships that may not have been apparent during the process itself.

Keeping conflict constructive helps to build decision commitment, and therefore facilitates implementation. But, to build buy-in, leaders also need to devise a fair process. During a decision-making process, some individuals will have their views accepted by the group, while other proposals garner little support. Leading a fair process does not mean trying to satisfy everyone in terms of the ultimate decision that is made. Instead, it means creating a process in which leaders have demonstrated authentic consideration of others' views. For people to believe that a process is fair, they must:

  • Have ample opportunity to express their views and to discuss how and why they disagree with other group members.
  • Feel that that decision-making process has been transparent, i.e., that deliberations have been relatively free of secretive, behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
  • Believe that the leader listened carefully to them and considered their views thoughtfully and seriously before making a decision.
  • Perceive that they had a genuine opportunity to influence the leader's final decision.
  • Have a clear understanding of the rationale for the final decision.

Q: Could you expand upon the role of communication in decision making? Examples in your book describe the power of e-mail in undercutting decisions that were made in face-to-face meetings. In addition, since meetings have a start and finish time and are usually expected to be run very efficiently, everyone has probably experienced a "checklist" atmosphere.

A: Leaders need to be careful about trying to maximize the efficiency of their meetings. In so doing, there may be a pernicious unintended consequence. Agenda overload, coupled with the quest for efficiency, often works against a leader's best efforts to stimulate debate. Why does efficiency crowd out debate? For some dissenters, it takes some time to gather the courage to express their views or to determine precisely how they would like to articulate their point. For others, they may want to listen to others and gain a better understanding of the issues before offering their views. The rapid pace of the discussion may become discouraging to those who aren't comfortable "shooting from the hip" as soon as a new topic opens.

To not get bogged down during meetings, leaders need to develop and employ a variety of forums for encouraging people to express their views. E-mail represents one such vehicle, but there are others as well. E-mail provides a wide range of employees with access to the leader, but of course, the danger is that people can easily be misunderstood.

Q: Assuming that a decision has been made that everyone will accept, how can the "rules of engagement" be sustained going forward so that old habits won't return?

A: It is very important for leaders to be clear about the way in which they want people to contribute and behave during decision-making processes. People need to understand what is expected of them, as well as what to expect of the leader. But perhaps more importantly, leaders need to maintain discipline over time, holding people accountable if they violate the accepted norms and rules of engagement. If someone clearly engages in personal attacks or withholds a dissenting view only to obstruct the implementation later, they need to be held responsible for such dysfunctional behavior. Leaders may find that such moments are developmental opportunities, where they can help their managers and employees learn and improve from situations of poor performance.

Q: What is the importance of a specific leader in the whole process? Can an organization retain these more-effective behaviors even after a particular leader leaves?

A: Naturally, the individual leader has an enormous impact on the type of decision process they employ, as well as the outcomes of that process. However, when leaders establish a climate of openness, and they make constructive conflict a habit in the organization, such behaviors can be sustained over time. For instance, Chuck Knight [former chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric Co.] made conflict a fundamental element of his firm's strategic planning process, and while he has now retired, the process retains the same atmosphere of vigorous debate that it had for many years under his leadership. For this type of sustainability to occur, leaders need to ensure that they not only change the way they make decisions, but they must develop a pipeline of leaders who approach decision making differently. They have to teach the attributes of good process, model those attributes, and coach future leaders in their implementation.

Q: How should managers, even those who are not the top leaders in their organization, use these ideas?

A: The ideas in the book very much apply to leaders at all levels. While many of the cases described in the book focus on CEOs, the concepts of constructive conflict, consensus building, procedural fairness, and the like are applicable to leaders of any group or organizational unit. In many ways, the ideas regarding how to build commitment and shared understanding are even more important for leaders at lower levels, who have far less power and formal authority than the CEO.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.