Why Great Leaders don’t take Yes for an Answer

Reviewed by: 
Michael Roberto
Wharton School Publishing
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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Harvard Business School Professor Michael Roberto wrote this book following extensive research into the reason why management processes sometimes fail. 

The research concentrated on events where teams of people who “should have known better” made fundamental mistakes.  Why was it that such knowledgeable experts either did not speak up or were not listened to?  
Roberto’s conclusion is that the failings were often the result of a break-down in effective communication.  In short, the people in charge gained agreement for the course of action they outlined far too easily and did not take the necessary steps to solicit, listen to and act on the views of other members of their team.

Although the consequences of such actions in organisational life are rarely as tragic as many of the more extreme examples used within the book, the parallels are necessarily there and there is a great deal we can learn from Roberto’s research that will help individuals become better leaders and help organisations improve performance. 
The book is divided into the following four sections: 

Part 1 introduces a broad conceptual framework for thinking about how to diagnose, evaluate and improve strategic decision-making processes.  This section reiterates a point similar to that frequently made by Edward de Bono, namely that leaders tend to focus first and foremost on finding the “right” solution when a problem arises, rather than first determining the “right” process that should be followed to make the decision.

Part 2 focuses on the task of managing conflict and distinguishes between the “hard” and “soft” barriers that block effective dialogue within organisations.  The “hard” barriers consist of the structural obstacles such as the complexity of reporting relationships and the ambiguities in role responsibilities, while the “soft” barriers consist of things such as status, the language used to discuss failures in the organisation and even taken-for-granted assumptions about people’s behaviours.  In this section Roberto encourages us to see conflict as being beneficial where it creates robust debate and allows people to challenge assumptions.

Part 3 looks at how to create consensus without compromising the level of divergent and creative thinking.  Roberto looks at why some organisations become paralysed by indecision and why some leaders find it difficult to translate apparent agreement into action.

Part 4 describes how leaders need to find an appropriate balance between taking charge of a decision and taking charge of a decision process.  This may sound like semantics, but in reality the former is dictatorial management, the latter is leadership.

The book provides and excellent analysis of the cultural and practical barriers that can stifle effective communication and cause poor decisions to be made.  It also provides many helpful suggestions that will be of use to anyone in a management or leadership position.

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