Book Review: Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer

Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus
by Michael Roberto
Wharton School Publishing, 2005

Although the words are not in the title, this is a book about decision making. As a researcher, Michael Roberto explored some very bad decisions. He looked at Space Shuttle disasters, the Bay of Pigs invasion, fatal failures to scale Mount Everest—decisions that in hindsight are relatively easy to condemn. But as he points out early on, these decisions were all made by groups of unbelievably intelligent people. It simply couldn’t have been lack of talent or intellect that explained these mistakes.

A key missing ingredient, it turns out, is conflict. Specifically, groups that are unable to foster enough “cognitive conflict” (while also avoiding the more personality-focused “affective” conflict) are more likely to make poor decisions. Roberto explores important structural reasons for a consistent “lack of candor” in organizations. Unclear roles, status issues, and even language choice can make a difference in whether or not people surface important conflict in organizations.

Groups also need to rethink the word “consensus.” Roberto defines it as a combination of a high level of shared understanding along with a high level of shared commitment. When groups combine the skillful inclusion of conflict along with a more comprehensive consensus, then their decisions are effective and implementable.

Making things better, of course, requires practice and a focus on process. If you really want good decisions, he argues, you need to put some energy in deciding how to decide. The choices you make about the process, about your role as a leader, and about groundrules will determine whether conflict trips you up or saves you. There are nice suggestions for things to do before, during, and after decision making processes to make sure conflict remains constructive.

“Great organizations and great leaders practice the use of conflict on a regular basis…. They work diligently to make certain that conflict becomes embedded in the processes and values of the firm. Their experiences demonstrate what Aristotle taught us so many years ago when he said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”