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Know When to Stand Firm and When to Back Down

Knowing when you are facing a test situation

Knowing when to stand firm in what you believe and when to back down and reconsider your approach or view is an invaluable life skill. A skill too many leaders fail to master! 

One simply needs to look at the recent political drama in the UK to see the application of these skills – done well, or not so well. What a difference a few days can make!

A former Prime Minister (PM), Boris Johnson, was forced out of office in the summer primarily because he failed to listen to the growing voices criticizing his personal behaviour and his selective use of the truth amongst other things. The most recent and shortest term (6 weeks) PM, Liz Truss, resigned when it became clear that her policies destabilized the market – and certainly undermined one of the oldest currencies in the world.

It took her time to resign, and in the interim, she fired her finance minister (chancellor) in a last-ditch attempt to survive the growing discontent.

Johnson once again sought the Conservative leadership position, before ultimately conceding a couple of days later that doing so would further divide the country and the party. The tone-deafness of it all was mind-boggling. However, a wonderful example of a leader who initially fails to recognize the need to back down.

So, what skills can we use to assess whether we step up and take on the challenge to stand strong, or back down? 

Read the “room”

It starts by reading the room, in the case of politicians, the mood of the country’s electorate. We can do this by stepping back and thinking about what we are facing. What is the lay of the land? What are we up against?

It sounds easy enough but how do we really assess this?

A helpful place, oddly enough, is starting with the end in mind. What will we be assessed or evaluated against? For instance, in business, what metrics, KPIs, targets, or outcomes is our performance assessed against?  It is important to consider the cost of pushing ahead with something versus retaining the status quo. 

If we reflect on the UK electoral example, one cost of Johnson pushing ahead would likely have been a further divided parliament. His return was just far too soon for most (assuming one was open to it at all). The division would have limited the government’s ability to push through the difficult choices that the country faces. Namely, healthcare is under strain, interest rates rising, an ever-increasing cost of living, and growing market uncertainty. Decisions are limited – and generally unpalatable to most – to increase taxes or reduce costs (which usually means reduced services). 

In business, the same principle applies. It is about knowing if it is time for standing firm (which usually entails pushing for a change) or backing down (usually retaining the status quo for now). It holds true in career moves, promotions, new jobs, acquisitions, mergers, and any number of operational changes. The clearer we are to ourselves (and others) about the upside and downside risks and opportunities – the more likely we are to make good decisions. 

Know your limits

Imagine you are being challenged by a customer to deliver a solution outcome that exceeds anything achieved before. You are quietly unsure if it can be done. Your instinctual reaction is influenced by management’s expectations – “the customer is always right”. But is this really the best course of action?

Knowing when to stand firm and when to back down means understanding limits. It requires honesty with ourselves from the get-go. In terms of our own capabilities, and those of the company we represent. This open approach builds trust, which empowers us to stand firm (and say no) when we need to without the risk of loss of the relationship. It is far better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around. 

Offer alternatives that include both your own capabilities and those that others can offer to help meet the customer’s needs. Show through your words and actions that you are on their team. Offering options, even referrals to another company or person that is a better fit for their needs, allows us to remain true to our values and competencies. 

Final Thoughts

Good leaders never leave us wondering – we know exactly what to expect. S/he or they are dependable, responsive, trustworthy, and focused. They do what they say they will do. Good leaders are clear about when to stand firm and when to back down. They know that others look at them for cues on how to act in the moment. A few strategic choices and skills allow us to rise to the occasion in these times. We need to remember that standing firm or backing down are choices to fit a circumstance. It is not about a show of strength or ego!

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your advice with others on how you address the challenge of knowing when to stand firm and when to back down your personal or professional life.  

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Nina Paley

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