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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.