the ceo magazine, decision making,
Linda Henman, President, Henman Performance Group

Why do some people trust their instincts, push forward and win, while others stumble to erroneous conclusions and then steadfastly defend their bad decisions? Why do some people rush to make bad decisions while others take their time and then make bad decisions? Whether thinking quickly or slowly, we rely on our emotions, mindset, and cognitive abilities to help us make decisions. Then, we open our mouths to let others know what that decision is. Most people would benefit from adding another step to the sequence—one that checks that we are advocating the right decision, not just the one we feel passionate about.

Unlike Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, I don’t think most people should think without thinking. A select few should, but the vast majority should not. Just because we see a leader who appears to be shooting from the hip, we shouldn’t infer that that’s what’s happening.

Instead, we should realize that most people need to gather data carefully, engage others in the decision-making process, anticipate consequences, and outline worst-case scenarios before they pull the trigger—or leave shooting out of decision-making all together. For some, the process that leads to good decisions happens rapidly and unconsciously. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all. Unconscious processes are still processes.

When I work with executives, one of the things I determine is whether they should listen to their instincts. For some, instincts are right more than they are wrong. For others, the reverse holds true. Here are the questions I encourage people to ask about themselves and others: 

  • Do I want to make this change because of the rewards it may bring or the excitement it will guarantee? (If the former, go for it. If the latter, wait). Not all great discoveries are made by gut instinct, flashes of insight, or reflexes. Some require painstaking step-by-step systems and attention to detail.
  • What does my track record tell me? Have I been happy when I’ve listened to my instincts? Too many people see logic as a painful systematic method that leads to paralysis. Consequently, they rely heavily on their instincts. However, instincts have an emotional element to them, so introduce logic into the equation. Look at results to tell you if your way is working.
  •  Do I miss opportunities because I err on the side of caution too often?  When I work with individuals who answer “yes” to this question, I encourage them to keep a log of their major decisions. As soon as they think they know the answer, I ask them to write it down along with the time and date. Then, I ask them to take as long as they think they should to get the right answer and to note that time. Usually, when they look back, the realize they had made the right call the first time, and they lost time and opportunities by waiting. The exercise builds confidence that they should trust themselves sooner and more often.

These three questions get to the core of whether people should listen to their instincts. They provide the first set of data from which you can define the gauges of success—the measures of how you will personally influence outcomes. First, you need to know what outcomes you want. Sometimes you can plan how you’ll make decision. At other times, you’ll find yourself forced into reaction mode. Regardless, clarity about outcomes remains essential to making the right decisions.

To build confidence that your next decision will be right, start with the right mindset—one characterized by logic, a dispassionate review of your experience, and appropriate risk-tolerance. Add in a sincere desire to learn and openness to new ideas, and you’ll cook up a recipe for success and better decisions.



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