image of a coffee cupWhile it’s clear our guts don’t do any heavy lifting when it comes to making decisions, that sense we describe as “gut feeling” is something most of us rely on to guide us through life’s challenges.

That feeling we get that we ascribe to our gut instinct is actually an outcome of our cognitive processes doing their job. Our brains have a wonderful mechanism for constantly evaluating situations against patterns from prior experiences and then unbeknownst to us, attaching emotional tags to those patterns. This pattern recognition plus emotional tagging is what we interpret as our “gut” feeling.

Knowing when to trust and when to question our gut instinct is an interesting dilemma. This blink reaction has served humans well for fight or flight circumstances or, when a situation forces us to consider crossing ethical or moral boundaries.

Where it becomes a bit unreliable is when we are exposed to new situations where prior patterns aren’t meaningful and/or where we end up with an emotional tag that distorts our ability to be objective.

As we grow as leaders and take on more responsibilities, one of our core challenges is making decisions in situations filled with ambiguity. From talent selection to strategic choices to career steps, out gut instinct never leaves us, however, it’s good to have the presence of mind to quality check our own initial reactions to many situations.

3 Situations When Senior Leaders Should Quality Check Their Gut Instinct:

1. Talent Choices. This is a sticky one for most leaders. I’ve heard from many who confess to trusting their initial positive impressions too much, only to learn down the road that they missed something critical about the individual. Others report spending a great deal of time trying to talk themselves into a candidate who seems great on paper, but left them with a negative blink reaction.

My guidance: slow down the hiring process and be deliberate about getting beyond your gut reaction and better understanding the candidates behavioral approaches to situations. When conflicted, involve trusted outside advisors to evaluate the candidate and be certain to not taint their views with your own concerns or opinions.

2. Strategic Choices. Many critical new direction or investment decisions involve moving in unfamiliar directions, and individual executives and senior management teams often struggle to make these critical and uncomfortable leaps into the unknown.

The lack of recognizable patterns and/or the tags associated with risk, the unknowns and the gravity of the decision are all powerful influences here. Our tendency as humans is to prefer the status quo….or something that resembles a close approximation of what we recognize as familiar. Re-evaluating your resistance to and initial negative gut instinct is important to making a good decision.

Given the gut reaction to stay closer to home versus pursuing new and different opportunities, it’s critical for you and your team members to get help objectively assessing whether your interests are best served by remaining closer to the status quo. Rethink the external factors prompting the decision-choice, and get help evaluating whether the risks from not moving might just exceed those from stepping down an unfamiliar path.

3. More Time and Money Decisions. If you’ve invested a considerable amount of your professional equity along with your firm’s capital in a venture that is failing to live up to expectations, your gut instinct is often to seek more time and money to fix the situation. This is one situation where your gut can lead you down the path of disaster.

Instead of stepping neatly into the escalation of commitment trap, make certain to quality check your instinct with some good outside advisors. Some situations may well merit more time and money, but repeated calls for these precious assets are a sign of trouble. As a senior leader, you can help minimize the risk of your own team members falling into this trap, by cultivating a culture where it is encouraged to tackle the tough issue of killing projects.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Many people rely on their gut instincts for tough decisions. While your instinct might be right more often than not, you can improve your batting average on the big issues by quality checking your initial impressions before moving down a costly and potentially mistaken path. Trust but verify.

Art's Signature


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