Theresa May attracted ridicule when she back-tracked on her policies on funding care for the elderly and then insisted she had not changed her policy. The UK prime minister had previously announced, in her Conservative Party election manifesto that there would be no upper limit to how much people would have to pay for their long-term care.
They would not have to sell their homes to pay their care bills while they were alive. But after their death, and that of their spouse, the state would have recourse to the value of their homes, although £100,000 would be ring-fenced to pass on to their children.
Many voters, including traditional Conservatives, were outraged. Mrs May changed tack. She said there would indeed be an (unspecified) cap on how much people would have to pay, but insisted that this was “no change”.
It would have been highly embarrassing to admit that she was wrong, especially as political analysts could not recall a previous instance of a UK party changing a policy between the publication of the manifesto and the election. But few believed her no-change claim, and her promise of “strong and stable” leadership looked tattered.
U-turn if you want to
So what should leaders, whether in politics or in business, do when they realise a policy isn’t working and they need to change it?
They should be open about it. People, whether in the country or the company, can see what they have done, and they make themselves look obstinate at best, and silly at worst, when they deny backtracking.
‘There’s a path between being obstinate and inflexible on the one hand and flaky and invariably wrong on the other.’
Far better to say: ‘I’ve talked to our customers, staff and suppliers (or voters), and we realise that this is not the best way to go about it. We’ve listened, we’ve learnt and we’ve changed our minds.’
That gets high marks for honesty, flexibility and for an ability to listen. Everyone understands that people make mistakes – and those who own up to them get more respect than those who don’t.
Is that it? Not entirely. You may get credit for taking responsibility for a U-turn once, or even twice. But if you make a habit of it, you start to be seen as wobbly and unreliable. Why do so many of your policies come unstuck?
There is a path between being obstinate and inflexible on the one hand and flaky and invariably wrong on the other. The key, after that U-turn and admission, is to think about why you got it wrong. Did you not take enough advice? Did you not think through the consequences? Are you consulting too few people?
That was an accusation made against Mrs May – that she relies too heavily on a small number of advisers and does not consult widely enough. The Financial Times reported that some members of Mrs May’s cabinet did not know about the social care proposals until the manifesto appeared. One senior Conservative told the FT that the plan “wasn’t really run by anyone outside the inner circle”.
A business or political leader needs to do more than admit to errors. They need to try harder to get things right next time. Making, and admitting to, mistakes is only acceptable if you learn from them.