It’s not the decision that makes a u-turn toxic – it’s the words

Is a u-turn really so bad? The Prime Minister has predictably been lambasted from some quarters for her decision to hold a general election in June, after numerous statements insisting she would not do so before 2020.

As with so many politicians before her (think Hammond’s National Insurance tax hike or Osborne’s pasties), the moment she announced her change of heart, the critics started sounding off.  The dreaded u-turn is automatically portrayed as a sign of incompetence or weakness that will land you in deep trouble. Don’t do a u-turn or you’ll lose face. Don’t do a u-turn or you’ll lose support. Don’t do a u-turn or your career will be over.

As communications consultants, we often warn business leaders of the dangers of the u-turn as well, counselling not to say anything now that they might have to take back later, or that might make them look daft a year down the line. Don’t say ‘never’ if there is a chance you’ll change your mind.

But in reality, avoiding u-turns is all but impossible unless you are wearing blinkers. In an unstable world where everything from geopolitics to technology and regulation to customer behaviour can change in a heartbeat, businesses have to be agile and able to adapt their strategy to take into account these changing factors.

They should not automatically be seen as weak or incompetent for doing so. It is a lack of willingness to adapt, change course or – where applicable – admit mistakes, that creates the kind of unhealthy corporate cultures which were partially responsible for the global financial crash.

Business leaders, and politicians, should be able to change their minds without being demonised.

But what they must do is clearly explain their thinking, and hope that six months previously they hadn’t used the word ‘never’ in conjunction with their new course of action, or condemned it as a nonsensical plan. Words of the past can come back to haunt you. It is rarely the new direction itself that makes a u-turn so heavily criticised – rather it is a poor choice of previously uttered words.

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