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Managing Reality

When Jack Welch took over as CEO of General Electric, he exhorted his managers to “face reality...see the world the way it is, not the way you wish it were.”36 This advice certainly applies to the challenge of managing high-stakes decision-making processes in complex and dynamic organizations. Leaders need to understand how decisions actually unfold so that they can shape and influence the process to their advantage. To cultivate conflict and build consensus effectively, they must recognize that the decision process unfolds across multiple levels of the organization, not simply in the executive suite. They need to welcome divergent views, manage interpersonal disagreements, and build commitment across those levels. Leaders also need to recognize that they cannot remove politics completely from the decision process, somehow magically transforming it into the purely intellectual exercise that they wish it would become. As Joseph Bower wrote, “politics is not pathology; it is a fact of large organization.”37 Effective leaders use political mechanisms to help them build consensus among multiple constituencies. Moreover, leaders cannot ignore the fact that managers often perform analyses to justify a preferred solution, rather than proceeding sequentially from problem identification to alternative evaluation to choice. Leaders must identify when such methods of persuasion become dysfunctional, and then intervene appropriately to maintain the legitimacy of the process, if they hope to build widespread commitment to a chosen course of action. With this organizational reality in mind, let’s turn to the first element of Cyrus the Great’s wise advice for decision makers: namely, the challenge of cultivating constructive conflict.

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