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Do You Trust Your Gut or Big Data?

I recently recalled a life decision where I followed my intuition. I was in my mid-20s and considering going back to business school in the midst of a budding career. My friends said I shouldn’t, and they reminded me of how well I was doing and of my comfortable life as a young professional on the rise.

My gut was telling me something else. It told me I should go back to school. I listened and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

Since trust is the foundation of positive relationships with others, I began to ask myself if we trust our own intuition. And should we? If so, under what circumstances?

In a series of posts, I have decided to explore three leadership topics on intuition: 1) When to trust your gut, 2) How your gut measures up against data, and 3) Why your gut works for decisions about people. Now that we’ve scratched the surface with the first topic of this series, let’s ask the second question: “If you have a lot of data, do you leave your instincts at the door?

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According to a KPMG survey of 1,300 CEOs from 11 different economies, eight out of 10 CEOs in the U.S. say they’ve relied on perception rather than data when making business decisions. Japanese leaders followed with 68 percent of its CEOs following intuition over data and the United Kingdom with 67 percent respectively. “You can be driven to wrong conclusions if you just follow the data blindly,” said Enrique Diaz-Rato, CEO of Cintra.

The survey illustrated that while more information and technology can help decision-making, neither is a substitute for intuitive knowledge and experience. For example, when Karl Sun was Founder and CEO of Lucid, he constantly faced the balancing act of working in a largely data-driven culture while not ignoring what his gut told him.

“The numbers can be a good jumping-off point, but at the end of the day, we’re dealing with people. And when you’re dealing with people, you need to include the necessary element of learning to trust your gut—even when the data says otherwise,” said Sun. Two ideas were at the root of his approach toward recognizing the value of data and your feelings.

Let yourself be human.

It’s important to recognize as humans we have a strong desire to innovate, test and explore. Sun says, “Give your teams the ability to try things. Sometimes they’ll want to experiment with ideas that go against every fiber of your being—but those often turn out to be the biggest wins.”

Data can mean pivoting.

The second idea is that if you’re tempted to go all in on data, be ready to pivot. Sun admits that it’s easy to drop everything and run with cold, hard data, but he cautions you to remember that numbers aren’t always perfect and don’t always tell the complete story. “If you’re making a business to customer decision, then this especially rings true … think about how you’d like to be treated as a user and a customer. Don’t ever lose that element of being human,” says Sun.

Looking back on my decision to go to business school, I’m sure the idea of letting yourself be human was at play. While everyone around me was saying I should follow a prescriptive career path and continue earning a salary, I had a strong desire to test my abilities with a diverse group of individuals and explore news routes where my life might take me. Sun said those gut decisions often result in the biggest wins. I would have to agree. Watch for the final installment of this series when we discuss why your gut works for decisions about people.

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