Trust Your Gut (and Encourage Dissonance)

11 Mar

I have yet to see this simple truth “Trust your Gut” explained in any of my MBA case studies. Yet I think it is important.

I feel completely saturated with financial and strategical knowledge about: Toyota, Ducati, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue, the diamond ring industry, Atari and Nintendo, Apple, Coke and Pepsi, L’oreal, Walmart and McDonalds – just to name a few.  It’s easy to see, in hindsight, what went wrong.  What threats weren’t neutralized, what competitors weren’t taken seriously, what technological advancements weren’t imagined. We discuss the finances, the numbers, the facts, the strategic positioning, the marketing, yet we rarely touch on the human aspect – why was a decision made by whom using what knowledge and how did their instinct/gut/past experience shape that decision?

Use Data Wisely and Then Step Away. I do this a lot.  Analyze the data to the best of my ability, involve others, make a logically sound decision, pray about it, then sleep on it.  If I still feel happy with the decision the next morning, if my gut says “Go for it,” then I move forward.   If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Do I think my instinct is as reliable as data and facts and historical trends?  No.
Do I think my instinct is as valuable as input from others with wisdom and experience? No.
Do I think my instinct should be discredited altogether? Absolutely not.

Data told me to not run my last ultra.  That not eating well, not sleeping, unexpected weight loss and over-training would make me fail.  My gut disagreed.  The data was probably right.  But I’m forever grateful for those 5 hours spent with a friend who passed away this morning.  5 hours of conversation and memories that I wouldn’t trade for all the correct data in the world.  And I finished healthy and strong.

Encourage instinctual thinking in others. Part of self-managing is listening to yourself and how decisions make you feel.  Am I happy, sad, excited, disappointed, upset, relieved, anxious about this decision?  And why?  Is it the decision or my expectations of the decision that are being challenged?  If I think it was a bad decision, is it because I somehow feel invalidated or slighted, or do I need to appeal the decision on some worthy grounds?  The more we do this, the more we can help others work through their gut reactions.

Encourage Dissonance. We’ve all been there.  The awful “retrospective knowledge” conversation.  The “I knew he wasn’t right for you but I kept my mouth shut” or the “yeah, it was clear that job wasn’t going to jive with your personal interests” or “I knew that business model wasn’t going to work but I figured that you’re the boss…”  If we are going to trust our own gut instincts, then we need to learn to trust the gut instincts of those we trust.  We need to accept and even actively seek disagreement on business decisions.  If everyone seems in accord, ask someone to play Devil’s advocate.  If someone disagrees, don’t write them up as having an “Eeyore complex” but seek to understand the why behind their disagreement.

Dissonance leads to new growth if channeled properly.  When the words “We can do this better” are uttered, we often hear:

  • What we are currently doing, isn’t good enough.
  • If you’d listened to me, the product wouldn’t have these issues.
  • Stop patting yourself on the back for the current success, it’s not good enough.
  • I will never be satisfied with your efforts.

Instead, see it as a fresh challenge, an opportunity for growth and advancement, not a personal attack.  Sure, sometimes dissonance is someone trying to make your job harder.  But it can also make your job easier.  Instead of trying to view your decision by every possible angle, you’ve got someone else doing it for you! Listen, evaluate, step away, consider adjusting or modifying your decision and sleep on it.  When the data and your gut agree, or, at the very least, aren’t in blatant disagreement, move forward.

Data told me to accept a certain job.  My gut told me otherwise.  And taking “the gut-driven road” has made all the difference.

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2 Responses to “Trust Your Gut (and Encourage Dissonance)”

  1. Matt Engler March 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    Excellent post. I see this difference play out when I study the difference between a “smart” executive and a “savvy” executive.

  2. ezelie March 18, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    Thanks, Matt. Yes, I agree. Presidents, military leaders, etc. There is a difference between good and great or smart and savvy as you put it.

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