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Why you should trust your gut when making big decisions

The surprising reason you should trust your gut when making important decisions — in work and life.

We live in a world driven by data. We make the most significant decisions of our life – from investment to hiring to choosing a business partner - based on datasets, statistics and algorithms.

Knowing the importance of quantifiable data, it might appear risky to skip the specifics and instead trust your gut – making decisions based on your intuitions. But it’s more common than you might think.

Sometimes known as the ‘second brain’, your gut is full of nerves and acts as a mysterious sort of information processing unit. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is a complex system of about 100 million nerves contained in the surfaces of the gut lining. That’s a significant amount of processing power.

This goes alongside the metaphorical meaning of ‘the gut’ – the part of our body where feelings and intuition seem to be centered, even when we can’t quite perceive what exactly is going on down there.

Despite not providing specifics at all times, messages from our gut are certainly worthy of attention. For this reason, more than 40% of CEOs say they make decisions based on their gut feeling (or intuition) despite having access to troves of data, analytical tools and experts at hand.

What does it mean to trust your gut?

‘Gut’ refers to the stomach, or more widely, the general abdomen area. The English language is full of gut idioms, with "trust your gut" being one of the most common. The expression means to trust your inner voice or intuitions; a "gut reaction" or "gut feeling” is a reaction or feeling that seems deeper and wiser than the surface-level conscious mind.

Intuitive decision making or ‘gut instinct’ is your ability to instantly get an understanding for something, without needing to consider other people's opinions about it or take time to think it over. It is your inner feeling about something.

Gut feelings arise within your body, and it’s hard to explain to others the exact source or meaning of them. Intuitions are personal, and no one else can really understand the full extent of your gut feeling. You have to deal with it alone. Trusting your gut or intuition is really an act of trusting yourself

One of the more common places a gut feeling arises is when dealing with unhealthy situations and relationships. It’s often hard to pinpoint why someone might make you uneasy; for example, on a date that’s not going well, or in a one-on-one meeting with someone who gives off a discomforting or threatening aura. You’re likely perceiving signals on a subconscious level that your senses spot but your conscious mind doesn’t. Those signals manifest in your gut and let you know that something isn’t right.

But a gut feeling isn’t just a negative ‘warning sign’ sort of intuition – it’s highly useful for creative and entrepreneurial thinking, too.

Why should you trust your gut?

According to neuroscientist Valerie van Mulukom, in the age of analytical and rational thinking, intuition or gut feelings have fallen out of favor, but your emotional responses towards certain things are not something to be ignored. 

It’s difficult to imagine the owners or CEOs of prominent companies making important decisions purely based on their intuition. Big decisions usually have to be made deliberately, carefully, and rationally. However, your emotions are not useless responses that must either be corrected by logic or ignored altogether. Your emotions are evaluations of what you’ve been thinking or experiencing. They’re a crucial part of your information processing system.

Gut feelings or intuitions are the outcomes of processing that takes place in your brain.

Current research suggests that the brain is a ‘predictive machine’. It constantly compares current experiences and sensory information against previously stored knowledge of earlier experiences and predicts what will happen next.

All this processing makes sure that your brain is fully equipped to deal with various situations. When something unpredictable occurs, your brain responds to it and updates its cognitive model.

Intuitions or gut feelings occur when your brain makes a substantial match or mismatch between past experiences and current experiences.

If you have enough experience in a particular field, the mind's intuitions or information are more reliable. Intuitions, therefore, improve with experience.

So why should you trust your gut feeling while making business decisions?

Here are some of the benefits you reap when you listen to your gut feeling during strategic choices within your work:

  • It’s a way for you to make fast and effective decisions in unfamiliar, changing and complex situations.
  • You can align your decisions with your sense of purpose and core values.
  • Intuitions help you retain energy that would otherwise be spent when trying to make decisions consciously.
  • You make choices that utilize higher intelligence and deeper wisdom.
  • You become more comfortable with trusting yourself intrinsically.

In business, you can use your intuitions/gut feelings when making any kind of decision: from making a partner investment to buying a business to engage in a joint project. Of course, these can be supported by data, and often you should endeavor to soak up as much useful information as possible.

But when relying only on a rational mind and logical data in decision making, you can be unintentionally blinkering yourself. Sometimes, you are so data-driven that you can’t see the forest for the trees, and fail to exercise wisdom and insight where it’s really needed.

That said, try to understand your gut feelings / intuitions. Your intuitions are always there to back up your logical thinking and help you get in tune with what’s not visible on the surface.

If you’re confused over which option to choose and cannot make a decision, the only way you can move forward is often to just trust your gut.

In which situations should you trust your gut?

Whether you’re a business leader or not, you have to consider a whole bunch of factors when making decisions in any role. To pick the best course of action, you’ll consider the data, weigh your industry knowledge, and take input from the trusted advisors. But sometimes the tools won’t help you, and you’re left to exercise your duty as a wise, decision-making sage.

It’s not something to be afraid of, but something to embrace. Here’s four occasions in which you’ll benefit from trusting your gut.

When you distrust someone

This goes for business encounters as well as those in our everyday personal lives.

If you’re looking for cues that someone is untruthful, you’ll rarely find them in their conscious actions and their words. You can get cues from the vibes they’re giving off and their body language – the latter of which can’t be consciously picked up, but will be by those deeper animal parts of your brain that evolved to quickly judge character under duress.

Although lying – or bending the truth – seems to come naturally to some people, it’s actually pretty difficult for most of us. The body often betrays the words it speaks by giving off micro-expressions revealing the underlying truth. When we spot these subtle cues, we don’t always immediately know we’ve spotted them, but our gut does.  

Logic and systematic thinking aren’t enough to tell you that the person is telling the truth. If you have a gut feeling that a person is deceptive or lying, there is a good chance that you are right.

When something tests your moral constitution

In business, you’ll sometimes face situations in which you have to opt between what is right and what is profitable.

Decisions such as new partnerships, recruitment, firing, strategic calls, and making investments can all fall under this category. It’s not always easy to make the right call under the pressure of competing stakeholders.

Moral judgements and decisions aren’t easy to unpick rationally. Some things just won’t have a good outcome at all, and you’ve got to choose the least bad of the options.

In these situations, all you can really do is trust your gut. If you’re not struck by remorse or confusion about your decision, you’ve made the right call. In other cases, you might have to deal with a turbulent conscience. Either way, sometimes you might not be able to rationalize your thinking at all. Just make sure you’re ready to explain yourself when questioned.

It is important to note, however, that in the hiring process, be sure to establish structures that help to overcome unconscious biases, in order to prevent your gut feeling from derailing diversity.

When you’ve done your homework

Being experienced in your field allows you to rely on your intuitions more.

Simply put, if you have years of experience under your belt or you’ve performed extensive research to deal with a problem, the solution will automatically materialize before you.

You don’t have to question how you came to a particular conclusion; you just know. You have enough facts, and you know what is right, so don’t overthink it: trust your gut.

When something feels right

Intuition isn’t just useful for dealing with problems. It’s highly useful for driving creativity and bringing a bit of magic to otherwise prosaic business procedures.

You might interview a candidate who doesn’t quite fit the bill for what you were looking for, but just feels like a great fit for the team. Or you could be sizing up a purchase – new software or office space, for example – that might have a few flaws on paper but just feels right.

More intangible things like brand design or marketing copy can be a mix of science and art; you’ll often need to start work guided by data and then use creative imagination to come up with ideas that really sparkle. In cases like these, the gut can be the best guide to what works and what doesn’t.

Again, be ready to back yourself up with explanations if you’re doing things that leave a paper trail, or have an effect on someone else.

Need some help learning how to trust your gut so you can make more confident decisions? Get started with a personalized coaching program, ‘Gut Feel’, for free today.

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