When I was a young manager back in my late 20’s, I was encouraged to trust my intuition more in order to become a more effective leader. By that time, I’d already been heavily conditioned so as to think rationally thanks to the process of studying for my first university degree, getting through several sets of professional examinations, completing various in-company training courses plus gaining a lot of practical experience at work.
As a result, while I was pretty confident about my ability to think, however, that bit of friendly advice given to me back then by an experienced business consultant and voiced as ‘trust your gut’, did seem like wise counsel. But what did it really mean and how do you do it?
As a coach I have reflected on this somewhat easy say, hard do piece of advice to ‘trust your gut’. Certainly, many of the better leaders I have known over the years do appear to adopt this sort of approach and as a result act in a more natural and joined up way. And therefore, I reckon it might be helpful to explain what I think trusting your gut really means and how to do it.
Most of us have a preference for either thinking first and noticing our emotions second, or the other way around. Sometimes if you ask a ‘thinker’, “how do you feel about such and such” you’ll get a ‘does not compute’ sort of response with the words “I think so and so” along with a very logical answer. Conversely a ‘feeler’ would immediately tell you what emotion he or she is feeling. This is a well-recognised preference towards two distinct psychological functions i.e. thinking or feeling.
So does ‘trust your gut’ simply mean that someone who prefers to think about things should simply trust their feelings instead? Or indeed that emotion-led ‘feelers’ should ignore their thinking capabilities. Well I’d say a bit of yes and a large bit of no.
If you just follow the mood you’re in at any one moment, then it’s a no. After all feelings come and go, sometimes quickly sometimes more slowly, and so by their very ever-changing nature following your emotions is not a firm basis for deciding on anything other than low consequence decisions or moments of immediate high danger. However, if you can instead pay attention to your emotions as if they are giving you a signal or input (just like our five physical senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste do) then yes, our emotions are a vitally important contributor to our decision making and behaviour as leaders. The key is to notice and interpret our feelings and not slavishly follow them.
Emotional Intelligence has long been recognised as a defining attribute of more effective leaders. And because emotional input is transmitted to the brain far faster than our cognitive thought processes, developing awareness of our feelings is vital in order for leaders to respond with appropriate behaviours more often. While both are vitally important, we also need to recognise that thinking and feelings are just two of the functions that make up our psyche, and that to fulfil our potential as leaders we need to work with other parts too.
Our physical senses are obviously another area and here too most of us have preferences for say our visual acuity over may be our sense of touch. Yet there are times when use of a less preferred sense will serve us better than a naturally stronger one.
Other functions include our drives that motivate us and stimulate sometimes impulsive behaviour. This contrasts with our imaginations, the ability to imagine that which doesn’t currently exist – whether that’s a brighter tomorrow or a cool solution to a problem.
In my view, all of these psychological functions, need to be practiced and developed if we are to be the leader we are capable of being – both authentic and highly effective. And it is by developing these functions, partly as a result of the natural process of becoming more experienced and maturer, and also by positively exercising them for example by working with a coach, that we learn to trust our gut or what we might call – our intuition.
Accessing and exercising your intuition is a bit like answering the question ‘what does all my experience and common sense tell me in this situation?’ It requires us to still our minds, fall silent for a moment if you like, and listen to all our psyche and then choose.
Sometimes people find it helpful to sleep on an issue, and it can be the stilling of the mind during sleep that allows our intuition to advise us. Intuition often comes as a big picture and holistic answer rather than being bogged down in the detail of facts or the swirl of our emotions. However, with practice you can learn to consciously access your intuition with confidence and become a better leader. Intuition isn’t a substitute for all the other psychological functions, leaders need to know how to think, pay attention to emotions and be imaginative, however, cultivating our intuition can be an antidote to analysis paralysis or a tendency to either emotionally overreact or under-react to an issue. And this is what it I believe it really means to ‘trust your gut’.