Don’t Take “Yes” for an Answer

By Heather Baldwin
As a sales manager you’ve probably attended meetings in which leaders have put forth a questionable idea and their subordinates have murmured their assent while knowing full well the idea was ridiculous – they just didn’t want to be the one to stand up and say so. This common problem often leads to unsupported decisions and failed implementations. To avoid the yes problem among your own subordinates, spend some time deciding how to decide, says Michael Roberto, a faculty member at the Harvard Business School and author of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer (Wharton, 2005). For any major decision, he says, you must make four critical sets of choices – or what he calls the Four Cs.
Composition. When making strategic choices, executives must consider who should have an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Job titles, positions in the organizational hierarchy and considerations of status and power within the firm should not be the primary determinants of participation. Instead, leaders should consider these four factors: access to expertise – people should participate if they have knowledge and expertise relative to the situation at hand; implementation needs – if someone will play a critical role during the implementation process, their advice should be solicited; personal confidants – if you have a trusted counselor who can help you think through complex decisions, include that person in the process; and demographic differences – typically, you want a highly diverse group of people.
Context. The leader shapes the context in which deliberations take place. What norms and ground rules will govern the discussions? Ideally you want to create an environment of psychological safety in which participants “feel comfortable that others will not rebuke, marginalize or penalize them based on what they say during a group discussion,” says Roberto. It is difficult to create such a climate, but leaders can start to do so by leading by example and admitting their own fallibility and prior errors as a means of encouraging people to take interpersonal risks of their own.
Communication. Managers must determine how ideas and information will be exchanged, as well as how alternatives are discussed and evaluated. For example, leaders might adopt a structured approach, dictating the procedures by which participants offer viewpoints, comparing and contrasting alternatives and reaching a set of conclusions. Or they can employ a largely unstructured approach, guiding the deliberations with a light hand. A third approach is playing devil’s advocate, with one group developing a comprehensive plan of action and another group building a detailed critique of the proposal. The bottom line is that leaders, says Roberto, “should strive to match the process of communication with the needs created by the situation at hand.”

Control. Finally, leaders must determine the extent and manner in which they will control the process and content of the decision. What role will they play during discussions? How will they direct the process? Essentially, leaders must make choices along four dimensions, says Roberto. First, they must decide how and when to introduce their own views into the deliberations. Second, they need to consider the extent and manner in which they will intervene actively to direct discussion and debate. Third, they must decide what role they will play – futurist? devil’s advocate? Finally, they must determine how they will bring closure to the process and reach a final decision. By addressing these Four Cs, says Roberto, leaders can vastly improve their chances of the final decision being the right one – and having their team behind them 100%.