Why you should go with your gut

Leaders who rely on their instincts are the ones who'll will win back the trust of the public, says Royal Lyceum Theatre Company boss Shonaig Macpherson.

by Shonaig Macpherson
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2015

At MT's recent Inspiring Women event in Edinburgh, whenever one of the speakers was asked to share her best piece of advice with the audience, the answer was almost always the same. 'Go with your gut'. 'Trust your instinct'. 'Follow your heart'. Each speaker went on to recount an occasion when she'd made a decision but had ignored what her gut or heart had told her and had suffered awful consequences as a result.

I'm no different. I have at least one such occasion etched permanently on my mind. It still causes my tummy to tighten every time I think about it. While I was chairing a leading NGO, the board made a major strategic decision that we knew wouldn't be well received by our varied and multiple stakeholders.

When presented with the communications plan and campaign to support the decision, my gut screamed at me that the plan wouldn't work. And yet I allowed the campaign to start. Our new chief executive had only been in office for a week and I didn't want to undermine her and if, as I suspected, it didn't work, I would be in the crosshairs of any criticism rather than her. I ignored my gut telling me that the only option was to say 'Stop!'.

As I feared, it was nothing short of disastrous and undid much of the good work that had been done to reposition the NGO. I still live with the consequences. So why do some of us fail to follow our gut or instinct in business decisions when, for the vast majority of us, that is exactly what we do in every other aspect of our life?

Over the past 10 years or so years, have we fallen into the trap of suspending our own judgement? As we find ourselves increasingly hemmed in by business regulation and red tape that prescribe our actions, do we simply no longer trust ourselves? Have the often self-imposed processes, systems and risk- management frameworks for every eventuality that we slavishly follow dulled our senses and extinguished our ability to stand back and say: 'No, this just doesn't feel right'?

Some recent appearances before the public accounts committees in Westminster would suggest that, in the biggest boardrooms in the land, suspension of following your gut, instinct and judgment is alive and well.

So why should we be concerned? For me this goes to the heart of why trust in business is at an all-time low.

For the past 15 years, global PR firm Edelman has published the results of its Global Trust Barometer Study, surveying more than 30,000 people in 27 countries to assess the levels of trust in government, NGOs, business and the media.

Over the past 12 months, the barometer shows that trust in business has declined to such an extent that, in the UK, almost 50% believe that businesses are not trustworthy (including technology businesses, which previously had higher trust ratings than other sectors). Even more worrying is that only 43% of people trust information on a company presented by its chief executive.

While everyone will have their own view as to what has brought about this sorry state of affairs, ranging from bankers' bonuses, mis-selling scams, abuse of data leading to invasions of privacy, aggressive tax planning and so on, I wonder if each of us needs to take a good long look in the mirror. We all know that while building trust takes a long time, it can be lost in a second. Building trust in a business depends on leaders that act with integrity and authenticity, and are true to their own values and those embedded in the business's culture.

In the book Trust: How we lost it and how to get it back, published in 2009, Anthony Seldon's prescription for the problem of a general loss of trust across institutions, ranging from government, the church and business, was that rapid changes in society, particularly those driven by technology, meant that we'd lost touch with others and, more importantly, with ourselves.

If trust is to be rebuilt, then we need to adopt a 'presumption of trust', starting with trusting ourselves. To be authentic, don't we have to trust our own decisions? If we don't follow our gut, we're not really being true to ourselves. A good start would surely be to claim back the vast realm of judgement that has been ceded to process and risk-management frameworks.

So next time I'm pondering a big decision and my gut is telling me it might be a problem, I won't reach for my favourite dyspepsia remedy. I'll follow my instinct, press pause and think again.

Shonaig Macpherson chairs the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company. An IP lawyer for more than 20 years, she has a wealth of board-level experience and was one of three female members of the influential Commission on Scottish Devolution.

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