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Leadership: The Science Behind Trusting Your Gut

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Imagine getting lost as you drive through an unfamiliar area late at night. You’re faced with a choice:  head down a dark road that hopefully leads back to the main highway or search for another option. Should you pay attention to the little voice in the back of your mind that tells you to backtrack because you’ve been watching too many crime shows on Netflix?

According to medical journalist Samantha Olson, you should definitely listen. In her Medical Daily article titled, “Your Gut Feeling is Way More Than Just a Feeling: The Science of Intuition,” Olson discusses the realities of this proverbial sixth sense that exists beyond the five we can measure. It’s a proven entity, and it’s ingrained in all of us.

We share the innate instinct to survive or escape from danger. To recognize when something isn’t quite right. To make an unexpected choice with compassion, even if it conflicts with the supporting data. Those gut feelings are indeed more than a passing subconscious thought, and there’s scientific research to back them up. We’d be smart to listen to that little voice, whether we are at home or in the office.

The Science

You might think “gut feelings” originate in the digestive tract, based on the name and that butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation you get before making a big decision. Michael Gershon, professor at Columbia University, talks about that concept in his book, The Second Brain. Gershon explains, “The gut has millions of nerve cells and, through them, a mind of its own.” While there is clearly a link, the signals that kick off an instinctive reaction or hunch actually start in the first brain.

In Samantha Olson’s article, she describes the “fight or flight” response that occurs when the brain tells our adrenal glands to flood the blood system with chemicals that quickly motivate us to take action. We may feel the emotional response in our gut, but the whole thing begins in our heads. The bottom line: these feelings are very real and deserve our attention. 

The Business Applications

Since the same dark roads exist metaphorically in the workplace, how can we learn to trust our gut when it comes to business? You can probably think of quite a few successful leaders who have been described as having great instincts and follow their hunches. That’s just another way of saying they trust their gut and leverage their natural intuition to help them make better business decisions. They pay attention to and follow the internal “nudge” that leads them to certain actions or choices.

Most people are familiar with that nudge, but they ignore it in a business setting for fear of being seen as impulsive or disruptive. Maybe you’ve observed a problem with your team but failed to do anything about it. Or you suddenly felt like a decision you were about to make was wrong, but looming deadline pressures silenced your inner objections. The gut says stop, but the mind says go. It happens to everyone at some point.

I’ll use myself as an example, since my recent experiences prompted me to write about this topic. I was participating in a meeting with someone who seemed focused on controlling the conversation. Whenever I spoke, he would interrupt. My gut screamed at me to just keep talking and not allow him to cut in, but instead I listened politely. As a result, I missed an opportunity to tell the group more about my business and the services I offer. I should have trusted my gut, but I didn’t.

Later that same week, I was meeting a client for lunch. He arrived at the restaurant before I did, and the hostess seated him at an indoor table in a dark corner. As soon as I saw him, my gut reaction was to ask if we might request a better table—preferably outside, since it was a beautiful day. Not wanting to seem picky or “high maintenance,” I ignored that instinct. Later that day, I reflected on our time together and realized the less-than-optimal setting was a real distraction. Again, I should have spoken up.

The Lesson

In a highly competitive business environment, we have all gotten used to basing decisions on piles of data. It’s tough to follow that little voice and make a recommendation that could very well lead to heated discussions. Speaking up and rocking the boat can be scary sometimes. I totally understand; the path of least resistance does have some appeal. But if you’re like me, you can think of times when you ignored a gut feeling and regretted it later. Listening to your gut can actually be a valuable strategy to help you avoid mistakes.

We each have hundreds of opportunities every day to speak up and ask for what we want. Here’s my challenge to you:  trust your gut. Don’t discount the inherent value of your own instincts. I hope you’ll pay attention to that voice inside, and find the courage to act accordingly.

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