Trust your "gut"

Whatever you call these instincts – gut feel, following your heart, or intuition – they can play a valuable role in the workplace.

Today’s business environment values data. We talk about the need to be data-driven, to drill down into the data, to harness the power of big data. And it’s true – good data and data analysis can be invaluable. But sometimes, our obsession with numbers and hard facts mean we neglect another powerful tool – our instincts.

We’ve all experienced a gut feeling. It might be an immediate reaction to a new colleague, a sudden insight into a problem, or a sneaking suspicion that something isn’t quite right on a report. People like Richard Branson have famously been guided by instinct in taking investment decisions. In fact, there’s even a documentary about him called Raw Instinct.

Whatever you call these instincts – gut feel, following your heart, or intuition – they can play a valuable role in the workplace. In fact, Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, says that in his work, he’s found that roughly 50% of all business decisions boil down to gut feel. He says, “Gut feelings are tools for an uncertain world. They’re not caprice. They are not a sixth sense or God’s voice. They are based on lots of experience, an unconscious form of intelligence.”

In a study published in Current Biology by researchers at University College London (UCL), participants were given a computer-based task and performed better when they were given less time to make their decisions. According to Dr Li Zhaoping, of UCL's Department of Psychology, “Falling back on our inbuilt, involuntary subconscious processes for certain tasks is actually more effective than using our higher-level cognitive functions.”

That doesn’t mean we should let our gut feelings dictate all decisions, however. Massimo Pigliucci, author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life, cautions that intuition is domain-specific. For example, a designer might rely on intuition in selecting between two layout options, but his intuition won’t necessarily serve him as well when it comes to selecting equities. A professional tennis player will rely on instinct to predict her opponent’s next shot, but that doesn’t mean she can predict a winning horse at the races.

Gut feelings are most useful for snap decisions relating to subjective or open-ended problems. For example, if you need to choose between two styles of report formatting or if you have to decide who to partner with on a team project. Gut feelings are less helpful for complex, rational tasks, such as drafting a legal framework or drawing up a budget.

University of Hildesheim psychologist Carina Remmers says that you should also trust your gut when you’ve had a great deal of experience in making a certain type of judgment call. You’re essentially running a situation and your response decisions through your internal database of similar experiences. For example, parents quickly become experts at spotting whether a child is legitimately ill enough to stay home from school or just looking for an excuse to bunk.

In the business context, tapping into the power of intuition can help prevent analysis paralysis and overthinking. It doesn’t mean throwing out data – it means pairing it with instinct.

This plays out in being willing to take risks, which is how great businesses like Apple and Discovery have achieved success, and in giving credence to emotional and intuitive responses as well as purely logical ones. If your hiring manager has a strong gut feel about a candidate, it’s a good starting point. He can then seek to back that response up with facts.

Instinct might be a starting point, but it doesn’t negate research and attention to detail in implementation. You might have a hunch that a new service will be attractive to clients. The next step is then to test that hunch to see whether or not it’s valid. You may have a feeling that there’s something off about a set of financials. The next step is then to comb through them to try to pinpoint what that might be.

My point is that it’s important not to discredit your gut feel, and to give yourself room to explore your intuition, while also gauging how it stands up to logic and the data available. I’ve seen this play out in business many times.

When my business partners and I first started our company, we did so based on a hunch that we could fill a need in the market. That was followed by market research, product development and lots of hard work. Ultimately, our gut feel proved true.

Tapping into your instinct instead of suppressing it can give you an edge and improve your decision-making. It can also save you from making mistakes and help you to respond more quickly. Next time your gut speaks up, honour it.


F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd, provider of enterprise-wide consolidation, planning and reporting solutions.

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