The Careerist

January 15, 2012 7:18 pm

The careerist: How to lead a U-turn

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Being able to bring people along with you is an important leadership quality. But how do you convince them to stay with you if you have to change direction?

How do I plan for a U-turn?

First, ask yourself if you’re really making a U-turn. “Sometimes what might initially appear to be a U-turn can be presented as a reaction to new information or circumstances,” says Peter Shaw, an executive coach at Praesta. “Your opponents may want to describe it as a U-turn, but that doesn’t mean you should.”

Secondly, make sure that you’re very unlikely to have to change direction again – everyone is allowed one U-turn, but serial volte-faces rightly lead to charges of flip-flopping.

How do I present it?

Politics has done business a disservice in this respect, says Virginia Merritt, a partner at strategy consultants Stanton Marris. “The political view is typified by Margaret Thatcher’s line ‘This lady is not for turning’, and suggests that making a U-turn is a sign of weakness. But in business it’s often the opposite. There can be more strength in showing you are human and you do get it wrong – as long as you’re upfront in showing why you changed.”

To this end, you need to set out your thinking clearly and concisely and offer objective evidence and data to support your case. You should keep your message consistent; Mr Shaw notes that the initial reaction of many people to a U-turn is: “Are we getting the whole story?”

You might also explain that your change of direction shows that you’re open to new points of view and that you listen to people. Mr Shaw adds that it’s not just what you say, but also how you say it: “People can see how you react. If you look humiliated you will lose credibility.”

What should I expect the reaction to be?

Your change of direction might be pragmatic but your team may struggle with it, says Justin Spray, a director of business psychologists Mendas. “A lot can be explained by cognitive dissonance – the discomfort we feel when we try to reconcile conflicting views, beliefs and ideas. Although the reaction might not appear rational, it is quite common for people to show feelings such as anger, guilt and embarrassment.”

He notes that you will have turned part of your team’s worldview upside-down and they may well initially conclude that you are a less capable leader so that they don’t feel so bad about themselves.

How can I deal with this?

“Recognise and don’t belittle their emotional reaction,” says Mr Spray. “It might seem irrational and ridiculous to you but it is a predictable human reaction. Allow them to work through the emotions and work hard to find the commonly held view or value that still underpins the new approach.”

Mr Shaw notes that a further problem with U-turns is that people may feel their efforts have been wasted. “Make sure you thank people for the contribution they’ve made even if it now turns out they were made in the wrong direction.”

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