Leaders are constantly faced with decisions. What is the best course of action? Should we take a risk? What is the right message to communicate? This also shows up in other ways, such as whether to move on from a job, whether to begin (or end) a relationship, or even where to go on vacation.
In a culture ruled by logic and reason, it’s tempting to play it safe and rely solely on what we know. Without evidence to justify or explain a decision, people might be likely to reject or even ridicule our choices. However, the irony I’ve noticed in my work with clients is that we often instinctively know the right choice – we’re just afraid to make it. Making those choices ultimately isn’t about having evidence or using logic – it’s about having the courage to trust your gut.
Trusting your gut can be scary. It involves against the grain of cultural norms such as needing proof, reason, and validation. It also means trusting our bodies over our minds, the latter of which is generally more revered in our society. When using instinct to make a decision, we might use strategies like:
- Second-guessing and questioning ourselves
- Minimizing and giving it less credibility
- Ridiculing and telling ourselves that we’re being silly
- Panicking and playing it safe
- Psyching ourselves out
In the end, we spend a lot of time losing sleep, agonizing, and twisting ourselves in knots. Instead of tuning into our inner voice, body wisdom, or sixth sense, we can make decisions harder than they need to be.
Learning to trust your gut isn’t necessarily the right or only way for every decision – it’s just a powerful and underutilized approach to add to your decision-making repertoire. When making decisions that directly impact people, such as hiring, promoting, and selecting people for opportunities, objective data is crucial to counteract racial, gender, affinity, and other types of bias. In such cases, our unconscious preferences can (and often do) masquerade as gut or instinct. When making those types of decisions, slowing down, using objective criteria, and getting input from multiple perspectives is important to promote equity. However, for many other types of decisions, trusting your gut can open up new possibilities and lead to unexpected and often better results.
Defining the Indefinable
How do you develop the courage to trust your gut? What does trusting your gut even mean? Although it shows up differently for each of us, some common signals include:
- Body sensations such as tension, heat or cold, and pain (or even illness) can signal a bad choice; relaxation, tingling, or warmth can signal a good choice (which often literally manifests in your gut, hence the expression)
- A calm and quiet inner voice
- Imagery, including dreams
- A nagging sense that won’t go away
- Deep “knowing” from your core and/or heart
Practicing self-awareness, such as through Emotional Intelligence, can help us recognize those signals. However, for many people the challenge isn’t about not recognizing our instinct – it’s using one of the strategies in the previous section to go against it. Our fear and self-doubt kicks in and our mind takes over, doing its best to stomp out the instinct. This is why courage is so vital to trusting your gut. When you do instinctively or intuitively know the right answer, it requires automatically taking a leap of faith coupled with decisive action.
Developing courage can take time, practice, and learning from experience. Starting with smaller decisions such as which shopping lane to pick or which route to take are low-risk decisions and verifiable. They provide good case studies in which to notice how your gut “communicates” as well as the strategies you use to avoid listening to it. Reflecting afterward can provide valuable information to help you learn your personal signals and come to trust them. Over time, you can work up to bigger decisions.
Taking the Leap
Our minds and external facts aren’t the only forms of “data.” Our bodies, minds, and senses also contain data, and that data is both vast and multi-dimensional. Opening ourselves up to listen to this larger pool of data actually provides a much deeper well of evidence than what might appear on the surface. Although other people may not get it and use the above strategies towards you, taking in what’s being shared and then having the courage to trust your gut is part of what great leadership is all about.
To help you take the leap, consider:
- What are some of the signals that your gut is telling you something?
- What strategies do you typically use to avoid listening to or following your gut?
- What are some past experiences in which your gut was right, and what can you learn from those experiences?
- What do others say or do (including old parental messages) that gets in the way of you trusting your gut?
- When you’ve chosen to follow your gut in the past, what were the benefits?
Feel free to share your answers in the comments!