Leaders: what to do when you change your mind

Published 10th January 2019 by Investors in People

Why do leaders change their mind?

Leaders change their mind for one of three reasons: external forces, new knowledge or spontaneous cognitive shifts. External forces include things like market movements, social progression, employment trends and technological developments.

New knowledge can come from many different sources, such as colleagues, the internet, books, newspapers or research. Finally, spontaneous cognitive shifts tend to come from reflection, epiphanies or challenging conversation.

All three can affect leaders’ decisions to varying degrees, from small adjustments through to paradigm shifts in direction. It all comes down to the state of the leader’s mind, their confidence in the original decision and the strength of the change agent.

Why changing your mind is a critical leadership skill

There are lots of reasons, therefore, that leaders change their minds. And in fact, if you consider how complex the world is and how much information flows around it, it would be negligent, would it not, to ignore new knowledge or external forces simply because you have already made a decision?

Analysing and validating decisions is a core part of being a leader, because your decisions impact so many cogs in the organisational machine. If some new factor renders a previous decision sub-optimal, it is the leader’s imperative to act. After all, what is more dangerous to success than unshakeable belief in the face of new evidence?

The devil is, of course, in the detail: how do you separate a truly better decision from simple uncertainty over a past decision? This comes down to reflection, logical analysis and bouncing your decision off other people. And once you have decided to change your mind, what process should you follow to limit disruption?

Five ways to mitigate the negative effects of mind-changing

Set a cultural tone of open-mindedness and willingness to change

The business world has historically favoured strong-willed leadership that resists persuasion and remains impassive in the face of external influences and yet there’s evidence that mind-changing is a critical success factor in leadership. This creates potential friction.

Challenging the status quo comes down to encouraging employees to more readily accept leaders changing their minds: subscribing to a no-blame culture is important, as is education on the real way creativity and innovation present at work.

Promoting people and ideas based on merit, rather than things like tenure or seniority, is also important. Ultimately, the more the organisation displays its willingness to adapt and change, the less resistance leaders will face when changing their mind.

Ensure your logic is reasonable – then explain it

There are good and bad reasons to change your mind. Unfortunately, these are not always black and white and it’s a leader’s job to decide whether decisions are being made for the right reasons.

But once the decision has been to change your mind, it’s important that colleagues and employees do not think you are easily-swayed, weak-minded or liable to flip-flopping based on whims. This can be a sign of poor leadership.

Explaining the rationale behind your change of mind is key and this should be objective and reasonable, linked to strategic vision and intent. People understand that decisions must be changed: it becomes a problem if they don’t understand why.

Present your new decision as an iteration of the previous decision

New decisions may look like totally new decisions, but all are iterations of the previous decision, developed through better information, clearer thinking or in response to new, external challenges.

But if employees can’t see the logic jumps you took to go from the old decision to the new one, it’s very easy for them to assume you are simply changing your mind. This can obviously have an impact on motivation and engagement.

You should present the updated thinking process or new information that led to the new decision, but also why the new decision is necessary. New decisions must be both logical and necessary, particularly if the new decision creates upheaval.

Delineate the road you take from your final destination

Changes to strategic intention and vision must be treated with particular care, particularly if cultural norms, motivation and team unity are bound up with the organisation’s purpose, intention and vision.

In most cases, however, intention and vision (the final destination) will be the same, but the road you take to get there (tactics and tasks) will be the things that change. You should reinforce this distinction when you explain your thinking and rationale.

It’s also helpful to show how the new decision better connects the organisation’s current position with long-term strategic goals and vision, which can help push people through their initial resistance to change.

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