When someone flip flops decisions at work. Is it a communication challenge?

I got my third phone call from a corporate client with the same set of unique communication challenges I had heard from two previous clients.  

It’s probably not a trend, but it certainly could be a pattern of behavior worth knowing.

So let’s unpack it.


Executive at a company does well. Seems to fit into the culture, growing with responsibilities, adapting to market changes.


Same executive starts to flip-flop decisions. Will sit in a meeting and come to something decisive, then go home hours later send out an email reversing that decision. The executive hadn’t done this before. So what changed?

How to identify what’s really happening:

There’s a problem being the detective. You can’t sit in the meetings with the executives and watch their decision making. And you can’t always sit with them on their couch at home and watch how they send out emails.

So we need to use some different methods to look under the hood.

I’m a big fan of the tool called Birkman. It’s different than all of the other personality at work tools because it unpacks your needs at work and your needs not at work. And when those needs aren’t being met you exhibit stress. Those around you wonder, “who is this?”

Like flip-flopping decisions.

In the specific case of this executive, and the two others like her, they had three really consistent needs.

They had strong 1:1 interpersonal needs. They wanted to be respected with individual relationships and usually were pretty direct. But their score to need to be around groups of people was very low. In other words, they were very introverted. Being in a group was tiresome, they didn’t necessarily appreciate the group, but became exhausted with too much group interaction, aka the proverbial corporate meeting.

This is where the problem starts. If colleagues aren’t aware of, and then don’t appreciate, their stress inside groups, they don’t calibrate expectations for performance. Instead, the executive will feel pressured to say something. So they do.

It’s a little more complicated than needing to speak up with the right answer.

These folks also have a high thought score, which means, they need time to think through decisions -on their own- not in front of a gaggle of people.

So play it out.

The executive who doesn’t like being in groups but needs time to process has situational pressure to deliver insight, because they are expected to talk.

However, when they have a moment to process the question and formulate a good answer, they will write it out, and sometimes it may contradict their initial gut reaction.

Which may have been a RESPONSE IN STRESS, not a true, informed response.

But they are also determine to find refuge from the group so they don’t hang around to clarify or discuss. They’d probably rather crawl under a proverbial rock or just go home and recharge.

Their email gets sent hours or a day later and all mayhem erupts. Just like a bully on the playground, they get branded. And then a hyper-focus spotlight is pulled out and scrutinizes them even more. Ugh.

How to coach through this:

There are always two sides of the solution.

The first is for the executive to know and communicate his or her needs. Mainly like: “I need time to think about answers, and while I may attend the meeting, don’t force me into replying. While I realize real time problem solving is a huge part of any organization, informed and thoughtful responses to complex problems may be better debated not under pressure. I promise to reply quickly after some thought if you promise not to force me into a stress driven response.”

The second side is for the group facilitator to set up the meeting with a question in advance. That way people can attend knowing what the debate will be about and those high-thought folks can come with some prepared thinking. The facilitator can also be mindful of the introverts: in other words, don’t let the extroverts dominate and expect the introverts to compete. (For more on this see Susan Cain’s insightful book Quiet.)

I will close with one other plea. If someone is exhibiting these behaviors, talk to them. A recent call came from an organization where they talked around the executive for months, resulting in some games of “telephone” that resulted in false truths being shared.

Now that’s a real communication problem.

What’s your communication challenge? All of Articulation’s offerings are focused on one thing: changing behavior for the greatest communication impact. Learn how we can help.