One of the most important and, in some cases, impactful things an organizational leader can do is a simple act that far too many intentionally avoid: they can change their mind. In our society, when a leader changes their mind, they often are perceived as indecisive, inexperienced or even weak. Indeed, the act can be career-ending for a political leader. Organizational leaders, however, must not follow the example set by today’s politicians. They must embrace the notion of being able to change their minds if they seek to optimize not only their leadership, but also the results of their organizations.
The list of politicians who ultimately were defeated, at least in part, because they changed their mind is long. George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips, no new taxes” before raising taxes and John Kerry’s “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” are the most prominent in recent history, but there are many others who suffered the same fate. The common parlance for this phenomenon is “flip-flopping,” which most political leaders avoid at all costs because they deem it better to appear resolute than to appear indecisive or, worse still, wrong.
In the context of businesses and other organizations, leaders face similar pressures. Many people unfairly expect their leaders to be right all the time, which, of course, is the equivalent of expecting them not to be human. In turn, leaders may feel forced to make a paradoxical decision: to maintain their personal power at the expense of perpetuating wrong and often harmful decisions that will only weaken their eventual legacy. Imagine what would have happened had Vladimir Putin been able to reverse course on his disastrous decision to invade Ukraine.
Compounding the harm caused by this “obstinacy paradox” is the example set for others by the leaders who engage in it. People are usually more perceptive than we assume, and they are likely to realize rather quickly when their leaders are making poor decisions. These same people are likely to realize exactly what is happening: that their leaders are refusing to change their minds because they feel trapped and unable to change course. This leadership model then becomes cyclically harmful: (1) the organization is harmed by the leader’s poor decision-making; and (2) the harm is perpetuated by others who follow the leader’s example so that, at all levels, people are unable to change course when circumstances warrant such a change.
The obstinacy paradox, however, only partially explains why so many leaders seem incapable of changing their minds when necessary. Human beings are susceptible to “confirmation bias,” through which they become biased toward seeing facts as supporting their prior decisions and beliefs. Said differently, we tend to see things the way we want to see them, especially when we feel compelled to prove to ourselves and others that we are right.
A related phenomenon occurs when we tell ourselves that our initial decision is most likely to be the correct decision. Some call this “sticking to your guns,” “trusting your instinct,” or “not second-guessing yourself” – cliches that are usually viewed as inspiring and self-empowering.
But consider the probability brain teaser known as “the Monty Hall problem,” named after the host of the ’70s game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” A contestant on the venerable game show is given a choice of choosing the prize behind one of three curtains and he chooses door #1, which our contestant believes hides the grand prize of a new car. The host (Monty Hall) then calls for curtain number three to be lifted, revealing a goat behind that curtain. He now asks the contestant whether they want to change their answer from door #1 to door #2.
Most people will answer that question by sticking with their initial answer. Why not? The chances of either door being right appear to be 50/50, so why not just stick with the initial answer? But according to probability, it’s not that simple. At the beginning of the game, there was a 1/3 chance that door number one was the best choice, but that also means that there was a 2/3 chance that the grand prize was behind either door number two or three. Removing door #3 does not change that reality so that, in effect, there is now a 2/3 chance that door #2 hides the grand prize. Logic dictates that the contestant should change their mind—but they usually will not. Why? Because we tell ourselves things like “stick to your guns.”
Making matters even more challenging for us is another form of bias: “negativity bias.” Described simply, we tend to remember the negative prior experiences we associate with changing our minds and forget the positive experiences.
In real life, our decisions are not usually as random as they are in the Monty Hall problem. We make decisions based on a set of data that are available to us and that we consider relevant; but we almost never have all the data we need. Nor do we always consider all the available data—intentionally or unintentionally. After we make our decision, more data usually become available, or, with the benefit of more time, we may see the data differently or determine that we misinterpreted what we already considered.
When we make an initial decision, especially one that is non-binary, which of the following outcomes is more likely: that we got everything right the first time or that, with the passage of time and introduction of new data, our initial decision was not entirely optimal? The math suggests the latter.
Therefore, if we seek to optimize our organizational decision-making as leaders, we must have the flexibility to change our minds regarding prior decisions. We must be willing to challenge ourselves and ask ourselves whether we are engaged in some form of: (1) the obstinacy paradox; (2) confirmation and/or negativity bias; or (3) just failing to appreciate the logic of the Monty Hall problem. At a minimum, we must allow ourselves to make small adjustments to our prior decisions even if a complete reversal is unnecessary.
To foster an environment that allows for this type of flexibility, such changes must be anticipated and celebrated, not vilified. Mistakes must be seen as opportunities, and people at all levels of the organization must be empowered to ask questions and respectfully challenge their leaders. The very leaders who have feared changing their minds must change their minds about changing their minds. They should do it publicly, proudly and humanly.
And leaders must model the behavior of constantly questioning their decisions—not in a paralyzing manner but in a manner that embraces curiosity and nimble thinking. The world is far too complex for us to see and understand everything all at once. Our humility may be the real key to our greatness—yet another paradox—which leaders of all types would do well to remember.