Most often, we think that changing our mind makes us look weak, and that in doing so, we reveal that we were wrong (which is like admitting that we’re not so smart after all). But new Harvard research finds that’s not the case.
On September 11, researchers at Harvard detailed in Harvard Business Review an ongoing study they designed to see how leaders were perceived when they stubbornly held to their point of view–even when there was contradictory evidence.
They studied entrepreneurs selling their ideas in a pitch competition and found that 76 percent of them dug in their heels even when evaluators presented evidence counter to the subject matter of their pitches. Tellingly, the entrepreneurs who adapted and changed their mind were six times more likely to advance in the competition, and were seen as more intelligent for doing so (even if they were seen as less confident).
Changing your mind when faced with contradictory evidence shows that you’re analytical, can comprehend implications of data, and can quickly calculate the different course of action required. It also shows you’re reflective, thoughtful, and smart enough to not let arrogance overrule.
Which begs the question: If you can actually look smarter by changing your mind, shouldn’t you do so all the time? The researchers point out that it depends on the context. What follows is context from the researchers and from me (based on 30 years of corporate experience at Procter & Gamble and Citicorp-Citibank). These are the scenarios where you should opt to change your mind:
1. When the situation dictates it’s more important for you to look intelligent than confident.
The researchers cited studies among those evaluating job candidates. The evaluators were more likely to select a candidate who changed their mind if the job called for intelligence (like engineering). Interestingly, if the job called for a lot of public speaking, the evaluators were more likely to go with someone who stayed confident and consistent in their point of view.
Context matters. There’s an important caveat I’d add, detailed in No. 2 below.
2. When the counter-evidence is super compelling, new information.
In this scenario, holding confidently to your plan makes you look especially stubborn, arrogant, and yes, even a bit stupid (as in “Doesn’t this guy or girl get it?”). I witnessed a high-level executive who prided himself on saying that once he made a decision, nothing would alter it. He felt it was best for the organization to keep them moving forward, and that reviewing things discussed in the past and rehashing them was poisonous.
This is great in principle but foolhardy if you make this a blanket thought that even encapsulates new information brought to light. This particular leader wouldn’t consider such information, and it made his followers misinterpret his principle as pure ego on display.
So sticking to your guns in general is a good thing, but not when it comes to persuasive new information (which can also include a compelling perspective from someone who was previously omitted from the decision making process).
3. When passion has entirely waned for the previous decision.
Even if the absence of contradictory evidence, a decision can just start to feel wrong. I was on a team that decided to pursue a specific approach to advertising a product. We stuck to the decision for years, but energy for using the approach dramatically waned (even though there was no evidence that the approach wasn’t still producing results). The smart thing seemed to be to change direction, which we did, which ended up re-energizing the execution (and ultimately produced even better results).
4. When leaders have role modeled that it’s OK to change your mind.
I have worked for leaders who punished a mid-stream change in direction, no matter what rationale or data supported the change. That kind of behavior forces a dangerous stasis.
It can be embarrassing to change your mind, so it’s important that leaders role model it by announcing when they’re changing their mind (and with clear rationale as to why). And when an employee changes their mind, leaders should push on the why, and if satisfied it’s warranted, visibly support the decision.
So hopefully all of this has changed your mind on changing your mind. Just stick to the advice offered.