In the last couple of articles, I was specifically discussing the usefulness of utilizing our instincts in making decisions that align our personal and organizational values to succeed at work.
Most executives did not get to where they are without keen instincts. When the time comes to make a decision, a leader relies largely on his or her gut – that is simply a fact of life. We would not suggest that gut instincts ever be taken out of the decision-making process, but there are times that process can be strengthened by objective analysis to reduce the risk often involved with extremely important judgments.
All of us use the experiences we have built throughout our lives as the basis for our gut instincts; we often chart a course of action without considering the logical components of those actions. You need look no further than today’s bitterly divisive, toxic political environment to see examples of unbridled gut instinct kicking logic and reason to the curb.
But gut reactions are not limited to large-scale, sweeping applications; they are an everyday occurrence. On your drive to work today, you more than likely reacted to some sort of traffic development, such as having to swerve out of the way of a reckless driver impinging on your lane. You didn’t have time to logically and coolly consider all of your available options. You had to make a move, so you made it.
Some of today’s most advanced neuroscience research suggests that our brains act in a similar manner even when making decisions in much less stressful scenarios. Many times, people unconsciously weigh emotional tags associated with memory rather than consciously weighing the pros and cons of a particular decision in a rational manner. We feel before we think.
It is ludicrous, obviously, to argue that business leaders should always disregard their instincts and make critical decisions solely on a logical, objective basis. You cannot ignore your gut, nor should you. Your instincts frame the manner in which you look at a particular decision. They have a massive influence on the options you choose to consider and how you gather data. They even help determine what people you listen to and what people you largely ignore. Even when you tell yourself you are going to be cool and rational, you can never completely discount your instinct.
However, it is imperative that you protect your decision-making process from long-held biases. Doing so means learning when you can trust your gut instincts, and when you need to take a more analytical course. Here are some suggestions how to make that vital distinction.
Drawing upon experience can be a powerful way to ensure sound decision-making. The subconscious mind relies on the recognition of patterns. If we have an ample amount of applicable memories that we can scan regarding a certain important decision, the better chance we have of making the correct decision. Chess masters, for example, have a huge bank of memories they can call upon regarding whatever situation occurs during a match. That is why they can make crisp, correct decisions in as little as six seconds.
Just because we have a bank of memories to draw upon does not mean they will help us make a sound choice. There have been plenty of terrible decisions based on a wealth of experience when that experience was not applicable to the particular situation.
You can have all the experience in the world, but it is not only useless if you did not learn the right lessons, it can be downright crippling. If you do not receive productive feedback then it is easy for you to take decisive action and automatically feel good about it. If you don’t have frank, honest feedback – basically, when you are surrounded by “yes men” – then it will be nearly impossible for you to receive any kind of objective assessment on past decisions.
If those past decisions were bad, and you rely on past experience in making those bad decisions, that will only lead to even more bad decisions and more after that. “Yes men” are a pox on clear-headed, objective and effective decision-making. If you have people filtering bad news or protecting you from it, you are doomed to making one faulty judgment after another. Take a long, hard look at the people around you – if you are surrounded by sycophants, your enterprise’s downward slide will only continue to get worse.
Do we trust our brains and rational thinking when making important decisions? Or do we make better decisions based on gut instinct and emotions? Recent research on the process of decision-making has brought to light surprising conclusions that contradict conventional wisdom.
Research published in Science, indicates that effective, conscious decision-making requires cognitive resources, and because increasingly complex decisions place increasing strain on these sources, the quality of our decisions declines as the complexity of decisions increases. In short, complex decisions overrun our cognitive powers.
On the other hand, the researchers argue, unconscious decision-making–or intuition or gut instinct–requires no cognitive resources, so task complexity doesn’t degrade its effectiveness. This seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion is that although simple decisions are enhanced by conscious thought, the opposite holds true for complex thinking.
Two pertinent questions are: What accounts for a complex decision and what accounts for a good outcome to that decision? Studies of the criminal justice system show that people value less the legal system’s outcomes, as much as the opportunity to see justice done. So the outcome is a matter of perspective.
While researchers disagree on the best way to make complex or strategic decisions, they bring to light for leaders the importance of both rational, logical thinking and subconscious intuitive or gut thinking.
Dr Surya M Ganduri, PhD. PMP. is the Founder & President of eMBC, Inc., an international firm specializing in strategic and executive leadership development processes that Help People Succeed in an Evolving World. Dr Surya has over 28 years of business experience in management consulting, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvements, organizational development and youth leadership. For more information visit www.eMBCinc.com or contact eMBC, Inc., directly at (630) 445-1321.