Do You Trust Your Gut? Ask Two Questions

How often do you use your gut to make decisions? I recall when I was in my mid 20s, I had a great job but part of me wanted to push pause for two years and go back to business school. The comfort of making a good salary made it tempting to turn down an academic side trip. Even my friends expressed their doubts about revisiting the rigor of school when things were going so well professionally for me. But my gut said yes.

I’ve talked about how trust is essential for forming positive relationships with others, but what about trusting yourself?

There are many compelling arguments for and against following your gut, so I’ve decided to dedicate a series of blog posts to exploring three important topics that intersect with business leadership: 1) When to trust your gut, 2) How your gut measures up against data, and 3) Why your gut works for decisions about people.

Author and Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang explains that after studying high-stakes decisions for eight years she found that allowing your gut to enter the decision-making process helps leaders move forward when they’re overwhelmed with information overload and uncertainty. As for deciding when to let your gut play a role, she explains that it’s important to do two things:

Define the problem

Ask yourself what kind of problem faces you. What is the level of what Huang calls “unknowability”? Reserve your intuition for decisions that go beyond routine, where calculations of probabilities and risks are infeasible.

Take my decision to look at going back to school for example. While I could have researched the outcomes of students who graduated from the program I was considering or met with my boss about the my employment trajectory, there would have never been enough complete data to tell me if going back to school was definitively the best choice. This decision had a high degree of unknowability, so calling on my intuition was helpful.

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Consider context

Huang also suggests considering context. In what setting are you making your decision? If there are models that already exist and can be repurposed, focus on executing your choice according to the pre-existing approach. If you’re pursuing uncharted territory, your gut can be helpful. Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, has a related way of looking at context. He reminds us that intuition becomes keener from experience. It’s our experience that helps us contextualize decisions, spot patterns and make gut-related decisions.

The next time you face a dilemma about your options, consider Huang and Kahneman’s advice. Give thought to the type of problem you face and if there are any models that already exist for what you’re contemplating. If not, perhaps your gut will help you draw on a prior experience that illustrates a pattern of your own. If you’re wondering what choice I made about school, I followed my gut and it was the best decision I ever made.  

Watch for my next installment in this series when we look at how your gut measures up against big data.

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