Beware the flip-flopper

My experience with a boss who flip-flopped on a decision and made me responsible for the situation taught me to work hard at not doing this to others.

Beware the flip-flopper by Nancy Knowlton

In the midst of a significant piece of work in my early career, I encountered a point of fundamental disagreement with my boss. Faced with a critical decision, I recommended a specific course of action that my boss considered and then rejected. I persisted in trying to push my point, bringing all of my best arguments to bear, but try as I might, I couldn’t change his mind. We pushed forward with his plan, which I got behind and implemented.

Shortly after this critical point, he called me into his office and told me that the plan was literally exploding in our faces and that I had to recover the situation. I sat there stunned, hearing him describe what I had said would be the likely outcome – an outcome that we needed to avoid. Even more surprising was that he appeared to be deeply thinking about the negative outcome for the first time and making the resolution of the problem my sole responsibility along with implying that I was responsible for its creation.

The flip-flop that played out was simply unbelievable. From my perspective, my boss had insisted on the course of action that led to the problem. Yet, when the problem that I had warned against became a reality, he forgot all about his role in it and insisted on resolving it through the action that I had previously strongly recommended.

Hung out to dry

I executed the agreed course of action to resolve the problem – that was my job. It was a case of both undoing some actions and taking a scathing tongue-lashing from the other party. I fully agreed that the problem needed to be resolved, but I resented the fact that I had to be the one to take responsibility for it. I felt set up for failure, hung out to dry and abandoned. My boss took no responsibility for the problem and all of the credit for its resolution. He flip-flopped, and I was the convenient scapegoat. To make matters worse, he did this in front of others, not in private.

Flip-flopping is hard on people

Through the years I have become even more critical of flip-flopping and have worked hard to not do this to others. Flip-flopping is hard on people. They think that they have clarity on decisions and direction to only learn later that this is not the case. Their negative reactions to flip-flopping on decisions are understandable – it is often far more painful to undo something than it is to make a difficult decision in the first place.

Worse yet, when people find out about a flip-flop from others, this can be downright infuriating. Through the years people have told me about directions given to them with absolute clarity and certainty, only to later learn that others were subsequently given conflicting clarity and certainty around a totally different direction. Their overriding sentiment has been a feeling of betrayal, with time, energy and emotion lost with no results.

Change in circumstances

In fairness, conditions and circumstances change, and sometimes a change in direction is not just a good thing, it is absolutely the right thing to do. In that situation the person changing her mind must immediately communicate with all involved, stating the new decision or direction, preferably with all concerned in the room or on the phone at the same time. This is critically important for all concerned so that they can align quickly on the new direction. For some it is a matter of knowing that their efforts in another direction were not wasted. For others, it is team clarity and alignment on the plan moving forward.

Four tips to avoid flip-flopping

I don’t believe that anyone ever sets out to deliberately change her mind or disrupt others, but for some, making and sticking with a decision is challenging. Knowing that flip-flopping is hard on people and consciously slowing down are good first steps to overcoming this problem. I keep in mind several actions as I try to forever avoid flip-flopping, including

  • Give due consideration to situations right up front, including thinking about the mitigation of factors that could cause failure
  • Listen to all views, particularly those that run contrary to my first instincts, to have the best possible perspective on the situation and the appropriate course of action
  • Act deliberately in situations that demand action versus acting quickly
  • Communicate decisions to teams instead of speaking to individuals or small groups

And, if I have to change my mind on something that I suspect may negatively impact others, I apologize for the change and explain the circumstances and move forward quickly with everyone in the loop.

Want to be an entrepreneur? Then learn to make decisions that you stick to. Flip-flopping has no place in a start-up or other business.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.