Going with Your Gut

June 2, 2015
I recently began listening to an audio book recommended by a friend. The book includes advice on how to streamline your priorities, and the author has the typical credentials you’d expect: He holds an advanced degree from a well-known university, he’s consulted for lots of high-profile organizations, and he conducted a study of hundreds of executives to reach the conclusions he’s presenting in the book.  In other words, all the ingredients were present for me to learn something useful. And yet, about 30 minutes into the audio recording, I realized something important: I already knew how to prioritize my life and activities. I’d known for a while, but I wasn’t taking any actions. Instead, I had stalled, complained to a friend, and ended up spending $15 on an audiobook I didn’t really need. There’s nothing wrong with research and expert opinion. Some of it is quite helpful. For example, I believe our own research is incredibly useful in helping companies determine how to build an employee experience that keeps your people motivated. But I’ve become leery of using research and expert opinion as a stand-in for something I believe is a far more powerful guide for decision-making: my own instinct. Here’s a chain of events that I often see happen at work:
  • A conclusion, or insight, bubbles up from within. For me, this usually feels like a voice or a thought that appears as a clear answer, sometimes in response to a challenge I wasn’t even thinking about at the time.
  • If it’s an answer to a challenging situation, it’s easy to immediately attach an emotion to it, such as fear or anxiety.
  • Rather than listen to the voice from within, we start searching outside of ourselves for answers, either to validate or contradict the voice – whichever makes us most comfortable. We begin polling our coworkers for their opinion about a decision that is ours to make. We accept the viewpoint of someone else who we perceive to be superior to us, with the rationalization that they are smarter, more experienced, or at a higher level than us, and therefore should know better. Or we look for research and data from respected authorities to help us make a decision, or to feel better about whatever course of action we’ve decided to take.
Are any of these actions bad? Not necessarily. There are certainly times when seeking the input of external sources can be valuable. But these days I place a greater premium on listening to the voice within and having the courage to follow where it’s leading me, even if it’s uncomfortable. What happens if it leads me astray? In other words, what if I believe I’m listening to my gut and it takes me toward an unpleasant outcome? Then perhaps it’s an outcome that was intended to happen. Perhaps there’s a lesson in it that I was intended to learn, even if it’s not particularly comfortable. Perhaps by listening to it now, I can learn the lesson faster than by attempting to avoid it. If this sounds scary or foolhardy, consider this: human beings have existed far longer than the advent of the modern business book, and somehow managed to survive as a species without quantifiable reports telling them what to do. You can, too.
Liz Kelly

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