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How to Change Your Mind Without Being a Flip-Flopper

Effective leaders change direction when the facts change. But how do you do that without coming across as weak-kneed and indecisive?
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Leadership is about pushing new ideas; it is about mobilizing and motivating people and getting them to act as a collective team. It’s about projecting commitment and expressing enthusiasm to get things done.

But sometimes a funny thing happens along the way.

A leader pauses and says, like the late, great Gilda Radner’s character Emily Litella, “Never mind.”

They may add, “I’m not sure we’re doing it right.” Or, “On second thought, why don’t we…?”

So, you're the founder of your company. You’ve put together a plan, evaluated alternatives, and then, suddenly, from nowhere another option appears. You’ve decided to eliminate a department, say, and people have packed their bags when you realize it’s a bad idea.

The Leader's Dilemma, and the Stigma of the Flip-flop

Your fundamental challenge as a leader is to be able to change your mind when required, without coming off as a flip-flopper.

I’m the first to admit that the term, “flip-flopper,” is no more than a political dig brought to you by campaign managers. But there is an important distinction between changing one’s mind and “flip-flopping.”

Being able to change one’s mind and alter course isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Do you really want to be a leader that moves ahead, full steam ahead without making adjustments?

Of course not.

Leadership is about making the tough decisions even when all the planes are in the air. Sometimes you have to have the nerve to say, “Come on back.”

The Five Bases You Have to Touch

On the other hand, you can't afford to lose your legitimacy by changing your mind constantly or altering your course every time the political winds shift. To change your mind while maintaining your credibility you have to keep the following steps in mind:

  1. Tell your supporters how your ideas have evolved: When you do change your mind, make sure you explain how and why you did so to your key constituents. Even if it’s after the fact, let the people close to you know your line of thinking and include them in your thought process. Explain to them explicitly why the adjustment was necessary before rumors start.
  2. Assure supporters that they aren’t being abandoned: Make sure your team understands that you still need them, you’re still in their corner, and you’re only making a change because it’s for the overall good. You must reinforce their collective importance.
  3. Make sure supporters understand that a change in tactic is not a change in intent: Assure your supporters that what you did was an adjustment and that you’re still committed to the direction that you, as a group, are moving toward. Just because you had to make a tactical change doesn’t reduce your resolve for the larger goals.
  4. Make it clear change doesn’t come from opportunism, but rather necessity: Make it clear to supporters that your change is essentially one that is necessary, not simply one of convenience. It’s crucial you make it understood that your new approach will enhance the goals you are all working toward.
  5. Make it obvious to others that their voice was taken into account: When leaders make changes it often appears that they are going about it independently. Make it clear to your team that even if you didn’t have time to consult with them you’re still operating with their collective interests in mind.

The ability to change your mind is an essential quality of leadership. Done well, the change of course looks like a moment of courage. You went to the precipice and had the strength to say, “Let’s turn back.” Done badly, the change of course looks like pure opportunism or lack of conviction, and your leadership credibility is left twisting in the wind.

The line between the two is thin. Which side you end up on depends essentially on how hard you work to keep others on your side when you make the move.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 13, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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