When should I follow my gut?

Written by Wyseminds · 4 min read >

Which is better: following your brain, or following your gut? It depends on the circumstances, right? For business owners some moments are about what feels like the right thing to do, and for some we need to know the right thing to do. 

But how can we tell the difference between these moments? And what can we do to get the most from both our analytical and intuitive strengths?

Intuitive ideas
Wyseminds’ founder Julie Perkins knows that struggle well. When she was head of Specsavers Netherlands she wanted to donate a small amount of money to local charities for every pair of glasses sold. “It was this gut feeling,” she says, “I knew we wanted to be seen for the locally-owned businesses we are, and that the choice of which charity or community cause should belong to our customers.”

But she was worried about justifying the decision to others. “It’s not going to instantly increase our sales figures 10% is it.” Her first attempts to gather supporting-evidence seemed to prefer information that already favoured her idea (something called confirmation bias) which only added more stress to the decision. So she began looking for reasons, rationale, and analysis that would persuade others, which inevitably focused on compelling business reasons that could convince the team that this was the right move. What began as an impulse to connect her businesses to their local communities was turning into a marketing gimmick, and she began to feel her idea straining under the pressure of analysis.

This experience is a familiar one – when we have a feeling of the right thing to do but our plan doesn’t survive first contact with reality, or we anticipate that it won’t work and we talk ourselves out of it. 

The problem comes when the aspirational message meets the real world. That’s because the simple advice to ‘follow your gut’ overlooks the complex world we live in. If we were to live in isolation, where our actions had no consequences for other people, and the world was passive and didn’t bite back, then running on instinct would be perfectly sufficient. But we don’t live in that world – and business owners facing complex strategic challenges need more than platitudes to make the best decisions at the moment.

So if you need to decide what’s right for your business, and you have a feeling about what the right thing to do is… do you listen to that feeling? Do you use your gut? Or your brain?

Faulty wiring
The phenomena of intuition is fascinating. For more than 20 years Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, CEO of Decisive, has studied how to make better decisions. She says “It’s great to rely on your instincts when picking a breakfast cereal. But for larger, high-stakes decisions, when we rely on our gut, we are relying upon bias and faulty memory.”

What we think of as ‘gut feel’, ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’ are actually just shortcuts in the mind’s operating system – they are ways our brain has evolved to handle the huge number of actions and processes it must do at any one moment. The instinctive preferences we feel ‘in-the-moment’ are a product of our previous experiences combined with our biology that has evolved over time that is geared toward survival and life-and-death decisions. 

Unfortunately for us though, this system is not equipped to handle the sorts of decisions that entrepreneurs regularly need to take. Einhorn, and other experts like Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, emphasise that while sometimes intuition can work to our advantage (it can be quite handy for keeping us out of dangerous situations), in the world of business and modern civilisation it just is not up to the task. 

So, that’s our answer, we should just trust our analytical brain, right? Well our rational brains may be better skilled, but they just can’t handle the workload. There is just too much information, too many variables, and homo sapiens’ internal systems were never equipped to handle it. Unfortunately, humans have a habit of not making decisions in cases of uncertainty – and in a world where data and evidence are expanding exponentially, can we ever be sure we’ve got enough data to make the right decision?

The “right” data
There is a principle, often attributed to Einstein (though there is no evidence he ever said it), that if you have only one hour to save the world you should spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. The trick to getting the best from your analytical skills therefore is to know what question you’re asking. 

“Looking back, I had another option”, Julie confesses about her desire to support local charities, “I just couldn’t see it at the time.”

“Evidence and data are essential to help us make the right moves, but I should have begun by connecting it to our purpose – the reason why it felt like the right thing to do in the first place. It felt right because it connected so perfectly with our values as a company – locally-owned and community-centred businesses. Trying to measure it against other criteria was what made it so much harder to pursue.”

This is one of the lessons that informed the Powerball – Wyseminds’ tool to help entrepreneurs grow purpose-led businesses. It’s something to use when you’ve got an idea, or a feeling, of the right thing to do and you want to test how aligned it is with the key drivers for purpose-led growth. It also helps you stay focused on what’s important for your business, and not be distracted by the analysis that is solving a different problem.

No one is an island
Of course the principle extends beyond any one tool; the way out of the intuition vs analytical trap is to remember that even entrepreneurs don’t have to make decisions alone. You can not only ask your team, but also consult with experts, gather data and evidence to open-mindedly explore answers to the right questions, or use established models to help you find a good balance between what you feel is right and what you know is right.

Most people are self-aware enough to know that the distinctions between intuition and analysis are false. We are made up of all the different parts of us, and the information and perspectives coming from our heads, our hearts, and our guts are not right or wrong, they are just information. And like other sources of information, they must be evaluated on their reliability, their biases, and their merits – not on how comfortable or justified it makes us feel. 

Reliable external information, the perspectives of experts and those around us, and models like the Powerball can help us determine whether the moment is right to follow our intuition, our intelligence, or another path we can’t imagine alone.

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Richard Doughty

Richard is a policy and communications consultant, supporting NGOs and socially-conscious organisations internationally. He was the chair of the Commission on the Leadership & Direction of Civil Society, and worked as a lobbyist and campaigner in the justice, education, and charity sectors. Now based in the Netherlands, he is the founder of Doughty Consultancy and provides consultancy and training in persuasion, communication skills, and policy development. 

Find out more about Richard’s experience