Don't Take Yes for An Answer

Great leaders aim for diversity in counsel and unity in command.

How many of you have censored your views during a meeting? Have you offered a polite nod as your boss or colleague put forth a proposal, while privately harboring doubts? If you answered yes, you are not alone. Many shy away from conflict and debate. Of course, conflict alone does not lead to better decisions. Leaders also need to build consensus.

Consensus does not mean unanimity, agreement on all facets of a decision or approval by a majority. It means people have agreed to cooperate on the implementation process. It is based on two components: commitment to the chosen course of action and a shared understanding of the rationale for the decision. While consensus does not ensure effective implementation, it enhances the likelihood that managers can work together to overcome obstacles.

Conflict can diminish consensus, hindering the execution of a chosen course of action. Vigorous debate can leave participants dissatisfied with the outcome, disgruntled with colleagues and indifferent to the implementation effort. So, how do leaders foster conflict and dissent to enhance the quality of decisions while simultaneously building the consensus required to implement decisions effectively? It's called "diversity in counsel, unity in command."

Managing conflict and consensus requires a shift in the way leaders make decisions. Most focus on finding the right solution rather than stepping back to determine the right process for making a decision. They fixate on the question, "What decision should I make?" rather than asking, "How should I go about making the decision?" Answering the "how" question correctly enables leaders to create the conditions and mechanisms that will lead to consensus.

Creating a high-quality decision process requires forethought. Leaders must shape and influence the conditions under which people interact and deliberate, and choose the type of process to employ. In short, leaders must "decide how to decide."

For example, after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, President Kennedy evaluated his foreign policy decision-making process and instituted improvements. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, he assembled a group of advisers to help him decide how to proceed. He directed the group to abandon the usual rules of protocol and deference to rank. Kennedy wanted each person to take on role of a "skeptical generalist." He directed advisers to consider the policy problem as a whole, rather than in the traditional bureaucratic way in which participants confine remarks to their areas of expertise.

The advisers then split into subgroups to develop their cases for two alternatives. One drafted a paper outlining the plan for a military air strike, while the other articulated the strategy for a blockade. They exchanged memos and developed critiques of one another's proposals. Two individuals played the role of devil's advocates to challenge assumptions and to identify the risks of each proposal. Kennedy purposely did not to attend so people could air their views openly and honestly.

Deciding how to decide entails four sets of choices:

  • Determine the composition of the decision-making body. Who should participate?
  • Shape the context in which deliberations will take place. What norms and rules will govern discussions?
  • Consider how participants will communicate. How will people exchange ideas and information, as well as generate and evaluate alternatives?
  • Choose the manner in which the leader will control the process and content of the decision.

Louis Pasteur once said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Indeed, the prepared minds of effective leaders think about the type of decision-making process to employ before immersing themselves in the weeds of a particular business problem. They search constantly for an opportunity to learn from past successes and failures, and then improve the way they make crucial choices. In so doing, they can stimulate constructive conflict and build the consensus required to implement a solution.

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