I’m a big fan of intuition, but here’s one thing I know.
You can’t always trust your gut.
Sure, that’s a scandalous thing to claim today in an age when leaders are being asked to be more emotionally intelligent, insightful and empathic than ever before.
Knowing yourself well–your values, your long-term vision and priorities, your superpowers–is absolutely essential on your path to being a great leader.
And there are times when your job is to make fast, confident decisions, and avoid the trap of seeking more data in a world where data never ends.
But just because you’ve defined your operating system doesn’t mean it always works flawlessly.
The truth is that your can’t always trust your gut, because your gut isn’t always telling you the truth.
(Unless, of course, you’re not a human. But otherwise, it’s just how your brain is built.)
No one wants to believe that they are biased. That’s actually the trick our biases play on us.
Bias is actually the brain’s way to save energy by creating shortcuts to all the information processing and tough thinking that life throws at us.
Over 200 brain biases have been documented by behavioral scientists (and summarized here in an often-referenced Wiki page with over 120 academic sources).
So let’s accept that fact that it’s highly likely one or more of those biases may be coming into play when you decide to trust your gut.
What do you do then?
When You Don’t Trust Your Gut: 3 Questions to Ask
Question 1: Do I need to slow down?
With apologies to Tom Cruise, we all have a need–a need for speed.
But speed can kill, and not just on the roadways.
My client B (name withheld for confidentiality) wrote me this story:
I was quickly promoted to a top position at our location after the previous leader was fired. The job was bigger than I imagined, and soon I was drowning.
So I was focused on one thing: survival.
My first lifeline was to hire a replacement for my old role. I had a great relationship with a guy doing a similar job at my last company, and I practically offered him the job on the first phone call.
He came in and basically decimated my staff’s morale. He also undercut me in ways I would have never anticpated.
That’s not true–I might have anticipated it if I took a little more time to formally interview him, have my staff interview him, and interview other people as well.
If I could do it all over again, I’d just breathe and take a little more time. Dealing with the gap longer would have been easier than repairing the mess he made later.
It’s soooooo tempting to just “get on with it” and trust your initial instincts.
But maybe a little more time is all you need.
Question 2: What am I avoiding?
Even the most confident among us harbor our worries, fears, and secrets.
Worries like “I don’t have enough experience for this job.” Fears like, “I’m just making this up.” Secrets like, “I feel like I’m faking it.”
And when big decisions land in front of us, those worries/fears/secrets pop up, like Jack from his wind-up box.
Our fears can lead us to “trust our gut” and not take a risk. After all, that way we know we’re safe, exactly as we are.
But that’s no way to lead, and it’s no way to grow.
When you ask yourself “what am I avoiding?,”you can surface those worries, fears, and secrets, such as these I’ve heard from my coaching clients:
- I’m avoiding looking uncertain. But I realize I can explain why I’m debating these options.
- I’m avoiding making the decision because I’m worried that someone will disagree. Okay, that’s just natural. No one will ever agree with every decision I make.
- I’m avoiding all the work that will need to happen if I make this choice. The idea of it just exhausts me. So I may need to solve that problem separately.
Question 3: If this decision’s wrong, what will I do next?
One of the best ways to test whether you can trust your gut is to consider the consequences of your decision–and what you’ll do then.
If the stakes are low, the recovery’s often easy:
- Refund the money.
- Make a new decision and move forward.
But, if the stakes are high–and the more human beings involved, the higher the stakes–then it’s worth taking time to create a contingency plan.
A simple contingency plan follows an “if . . . then. . .” model:
- If our clients complain about the price increase, then my team and I will visit each one of them in person and make sure we’re showing them the value we bring.
- If my boss gets angry after I tell her what I’m looking for next, then that’s a good sign I likely need to move on.
- If the team doesn’t use the new process within a couple weeks, then we’ll have an open forum to figure out what’s getting in the way.
Being wrong is never the end of the world. Planning ahead for what you’ll do if you’re wrong is a way to be prepared no matter what.