Managing for Conflict and Consensus

on Sunday, 13 May 2012. Posted in Interviews about Leadership / Gender Theory

Managing for Conflict and Consensus

Michael Roberto is a Visiting Associate Professor of Management at New YorkUniversity’s Stern School of Business.  He spent the past six years as a faculty member in the General Management unit at theHarvardBusinessSchool. 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. More recently, he has studied why catastrophic group or organizational failures happen, such as the Columbia Space Shuttle accident and the 1996Mount Everesttragedy. His new book, Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes For An Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus  (Book description below), was released in June 2005 by Wharton School Publishing. He has published articles based upon his research in the Harvard Business Review,CaliforniaManagement Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, The Leadership Quarterly. Group and Organization Management, and Ivey Business Journal.  His 2004 article, "Strategic decision-making processes: Beyond the efficiency-consensus tradeoff" was selected by Emerald Management Reviews as one of the top 50 management articles of 2004, from among 20,000 articles reviewed by that organization in that year. In addition, an article based upon his research earned him the Robert Litschert Best Doctoral Student Paper Award in the year 2000 in theAcademyofManagement's Business Policy Division. This paper was published in theAcademyofManagement's Best Paper Proceedings. 

Over the past few years, Professor Roberto has taught in the leadership development programs at a number of firms including Morgan Stanley, The Home Depot, Mars, Novartis, The World Bank, Thales, and Nomura Research Institute. He has also consulted with organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Corporate Executive Board, and The Advisory Board. 

Professor Roberto received an A.B. with honors fromHarvardCollegein 1991. He earned an M.B.A. with High Distinction fromHarvardBusinessSchoolin 1995, graduating as a George F. Baker Scholar. He also received his D.B.A. from theHarvardBusinessSchoolin 2000. While pursuing graduate studies at Harvard, he taught the introductory undergraduate course in economic theory for two years, and won the Allyn Young Prize for Teaching in Economics on each occasion. 

Prior to joining the faculty, Professor Roberto worked as a financial analyst at General Dynamics, where he evaluated the company's performance on nuclear submarine programs. In addition, he worked as a project manager at Staples Inc., where he played a role in the company's acquisition integration efforts. 

In his spare time, he enjoys running, hiking, and cooking. He lives inHolliston,Massachusettswith his wife, Kristin, and his two daughters, Grace and Celia. 

Book Description: Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus

HarvardBusinessSchool's Michael Roberto draws on  decision-making case studies from every walk of life, showing how to promote honest, constructive dissent and scepticism; He suggests that the book can be used 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.  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." Michael Roberto

Interview with Professor Michael A. Roberto

In your book, Why great leaders don’t take yes for an answer, you pose the argument that leaders can enhance the quality of their decision making by cultivating constructive conflict. Can you explain what constructive conflict is and how leaders can achieve this? 

Constructive conflict means that you have an issue and task-oriented debate without the personality clashes and interpersonal friction that can sometimes cause disagreements to become highly destructive.   Leaders can stimulate constructive conflict in many ways.  For instance, they might split their management team into two subgroups, and have the two groups generate and debate alterative courses of action for the firm.  Similarly, they might assign one or more devil’s advocates to critique a proposal currently under consideration. 

The second argument that you pose is that leaders should spend time deciding on how to decide and you explain that this involves an assessment of who should be involved in deliberations, the type of interpersonal climate and  the type of control the leader exerts during the process. Do you think that this does not occur in most organizations either implicitly or explicitly? How can the strategies you advocate be implemented before the decision process occurs? 

In many cases, organizations do not even implicitly consider how they might design a decision-making process before it begins.  Instead, many of us want to dive in quickly to solve the problem at hand, rather than thinking carefully about the process through which the organization should tackle the problem.  This happens because many managers rise to their current positions by virtue of being very good in a particular subject area.  They are very adept at solving particular types of problems on their own.   However, in many situations, the leader doesn’t have all the answers; he or she cannot both solve a particular problem and execute the solution in isolation.  Designing an effective decision process not only helps the leader marshal the collective intelligence and capability of his or team/organization, but it also ensures that buy-in and commitment has been established to facilitate implementation.  

From the extensive research that you undertook, what were some of the crucial insights that you gained into decision making processes that shaped your thinking? 

Many scholars and practitioners used to talk about how there was a tradeoff between conflict and consensus.  In other words, if you stimulated debate, you might diminish the amount of buy-in and group harmony within a management team, thus harming the ability to implement a decision.  What I found was that some very capable leaders could structure a debate in a way that allowed people to come together at the end, with strong shared understanding and commitment to the decision at hand, even if they didn’t agree completely with the final choice.   The book, then, became my effort to articulate how these accomplished leaders managed this challenging feat.  

Did you uncover any gender related issues in the area of decision making in organizations? 

My research did not focus explicitly on gender, though I tried to study a wide variety of leaders.  For instance, I talk in the book about how Julie Morath created a culture at Children’s Hospital inMinneapoliswhere everyone could speak more openly about medical accidents and near-misses.  That new, more candid culture promoted organizational learning and improved patient safety.  Could a male executive have achieved the same results?  Perhaps, but Julie certainly had a very unique and effective leadership style, some aspects of which we might attribute to her background/gender.  However, my research does not allow me to make any broader generalizations regarding gender differences in decision-making.  

Which theories did you find yourself drawing upon to explain some of your findings and how did they support some of your key findings.

My research is cross-displinary in nature, meaning that I did not rely on one particular discipline. I drew on cognitive and social psychology, organizational sociology, economics, and political science.  My research always focused first and foremost on the phenomenon of management decision-making, and then drew upon the theories that were most helpful in explaining that phenomenon.  Some researchers, unfortunately, have a hammer (a particular academic discipline) in search of nails (phenomena that can be explained with that theory).  I most certainly did not take that approach.

What are your views about leaders in relation to what makes an effective leader and can anyone become a leader? How can one choose to develop their leadership potential? 

I believe very strongly that leaders can develop their skills and capabilities.  There is no way one best way to achieve personal development.  Most leaders would benefit from a combination of academic training, professional workshops, personal coaching, on-the-job training, and 360 degree feedback processes.  

You propose that leaders need to achieve a delicate balance of restraint and assertiveness with leaders taking an active role shaping the process without micromanaging the content of the decision?  How can leaders acquire this sense of intuitive judgment of knowing when to empower and when to take charge, when the stakes are high? 

Experience is the best teacher.  That means making some mistakes.  Leaders can only get this balance right by systematically assessing their performance as they make decisions.  They need to reflect on past decision-making processes, and determine how they can improve the process going forward.  In most cases, that will require gathering feedback from other participants in the process, as well as outside constituencies.  The key is to make that learning a regular practice, after most major decisions… not simply an activity reserved for the occasional abysmal failure.  

As you point out, most decisions are made before they reach the formalized decision making process with individuals discussing the issues and lobbying their positions. Should this be avoided and if yes, how can it be minimized? 

The key is making sure that everyone involved believes the process is fair and legitimate.  Making the major decision before a key management team meeting is ok, as long as everyone involved knows what is going on, and had a genuine opportunity to offer input at some point in the process.  The problem arises when a leader creates what my friend and colleague Michael Watkins calls a charade of consultation…i.e. he or she had already made the decision, but pretends to consult with others despite having no intention of changing the decision.  

You outline the distinction between process oriented decisions and outcome oriented decisions and argue that process oriented decisions are more effective as they develop consensus, which you define as achieving the individual’s commitment to the outcome, regardless of whether people unanimously agree with the outcome. 

a)      From the participant’s perspective, do you think that they are more concerned with the process than with the content of the decision process or do you see these as being of equal significance to them? 

b)      How do you explain eliciting commitment from an individual who does not agree with the final decision outcome?  How would such a consensus building process be effective when individuals despite being involved in the decision process do not agree with the final outcome which has been arrived at collectively. 

I don’t to imply that process is more important than outcome.  What the research (mine and others) shows is that people are more likely to commit to a particular decision if they believe the process is fair and legitimate.  What I argue is that leaders shouldn’t be concerned about always trying to achieve a fair outcome; that can lead to mediocre compromises.  They need to do what is best for the organization as a whole, rather than trying to appease everyone involved. However, they should try to achieve a fair process, so that even those who disagree with the outcome are more likely to commit to cooperate in its implementation.  The evidence on fair process is overwhelming, beginning with some seminal studies in the field of law.  People value the fairness of a legal process, or any decision-making process, a great deal.  

How did you come to be interested in leadership? What was the reason that led you to write the book, Why great leaders don’t take yes for an answer? What are you hoping that this book will achieve? 

I was working in the private sector after my MBA, and I became very interested in a particular type of decision-making, namely how organizations made acquisition decisions.  Then, when I returned to academia ten years ago to complete my doctorate, I began to study managerial decision-making more broadly.  After nine years of research on the subject, I decided that I wanted to write a book so that I could expand the impact of my ideas beyond my students to managers throughout the business world.  My goal is to help improve the practice of management; I believe that should be the goal of all business school professors, rather than simply conducting research for the sake of a small cadre of fellow scholars.