When to trust your gut

Great leaders often cite intuition as a major contributor to their success. Here's how to tune in to your instincts.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 24 Sep 2019

When there are tough choices to be made, leaders may need to fall back on gut feeling to decide the best course of action. Gut instinct is a combination of experience, intuition, and the ability to take calculated risks, with a little faith thrown in for good measure.

The likes of Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet claimed that intuition was vital to their success, and that this instinct led them to go against the advice of others and stand against the tide.  

It’s not always easy to listen to your instincts in business over all the competing noise. Four entrepreneurs share their tips for learning which hunches to trust, how to make sure you don’t get duped by your own ego, and when to use your head instead.

Understand the factors that contribute to ‘gut feeling’

Holly Tucker MBE (pictured) is the co-founder of NotOnTheHighStreet.com and now the driving force behind small business advice firm Holly & Co. She explains that it is only through understanding the basis for your gut reactions that you can tell they are genuine. 

"It’s about using rational reasoning to act on what is essentially an emotional response," she says.

 "Life experience means that your gut and your sense are not two completely separate rudders - especially as age and experience force them together," adds Nisha Katona MBE, founder and CEO of Mowgli Street Food, a fast-growing chain of restaurants. 

Beware of ego

There can be no reliable gut feeling if you allow arrogance or overconfidence to creep in, says Karen Holden, founder and boss of London-based A City Law Firm. "I have always followed my gut and would like to think it’s been right the majority of times, but it’s essential to reflect on your mistakes and decisions," she says. "If you have got it wrong, admit it to yourself. Consider what you could have done differently. Learn and adapt. Being honest with myself is why I think I can trust my instincts." 

Train your instincts

Katona believes that you can also hone your gut instincts by building a great culture and forming positive habits. "Every business should have a guiding principle or culture," she explains. "Look at your decisions and ask the question: do my instincts enrich the lives of my staff and customers? Of my community?  If your instincts repeatedly and naturally lead you to these outcomes then you can better learn to trust them." 

"Everyday I train myself to trust my gut," adds Tucker. "It has been a process, but I describe it as my internal compass, my true north.  If ever I am feeling a little lost, I wait for my gut instinct to kick in and set me back on the right path."

If in doubt, get a second opinion

A City Law Firm’s Holden says there is no shame in using a sounding board when you doubt your gut feeling. "You should always hear a second opinion," she says. "Really reflect and consider your options so that it’s an informed decision rather than running with your heart alone." 

But Tucker warns leaders not to be swayed by outside advice when you are sure you are right: "At one point I was surrounded by many so-called experts that I had brought in," she explains. 

"At times my gut instinct was screaming at me, but I allowed it to be overruled by my head and ultimately the voices and data that I had become surrounded by - gut instinct is incredibly difficult to communicate in these circumstances."

Know when to ignore your gut

Of course, there are times when it is inadvisable to allow a hunch to dictate your strategy. For example, according to Tim Williams, chief executive of fashion technology firm YR, it’s best to use your head when creating contracts or legal documents. 

"Never trust that someone will do what he or she says they will," he says. "Contract negotiations are where you need to really do the opposite to gut instinct." 

He adds that it is not always best to go on gut instinct when hiring either. "I find it impossible to know 100 per cent how someone will perform or whether they will be part of the YR culture. Sometimes my gut has been wrong." 

Tucker adds: "Gut instincts can get you extraordinarily far, but they must be used within the parameters of all the other metrics of your business.  If the data is telling you something, you must listen."

However, even as business becomes more and more data-driven, Williams believes there will always be a place for gut feeling: "Decisions made without emotion can obviously pay dividends but also can take too long - sometimes you need to rely on instinct."

Image credit: JamesDunford1 via Creative commons


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