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Go with your Gut: developing leadership instincts to survive and thrive in an uncertain world

One of the best career decisions of my life involved turning down a job. It was a meaty, challenging Head of Talent role at an apparently wildly successful start up, tipped for one of the biggest IPOs in history. I can’t explain why I made that decision. All of the available data pointed to it being a great opportunity. I remember a pang of regret on reading the Linked In post announcing who got the job.

One year later, I met that person at a conference in New York. He looked hollow-eyed and tired. Later the same week, a media storm broke about the company. Toxic culture, investor fraud and a series of layoffs – the company was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The IPO was delayed- permanently. The Head of Talent is now at another company.

The point of this story is that gut feeling drove my decision.

Thanks to big data and AI, we are at a time in history when there is more information available than ever. Despite this, most of the senior leaders I’ve worked with have confessed, somewhat guiltily, to basing many important decisions on instinct. A recent survey of over 2,000 CEOs supports this – two thirds rely on their gut when making decisions.

Is this a good thing? Wouldn’t leaders make better decisions if they used the abundance of data available to them? Like many aspects of leadership, it appears that the answer is both / and – a dynamic balance of science and art.

Leaders become effective decisions makers when they can combine what they sense is right (what their gut tells them) with data and perspectives from diverse sources. That said, in times of rapid change and uncertainty (and we’ve seen plenty of these, with no doubt more to come) gut instinct, or what The Oxford Academy of Leadership calls “intuitive intelligence”, becomes a vital tool in any leader’s decision-making process.

The question is: can leaders learn to develop good instincts, so they know when and how to listen to their gut? I believe that any good leadership development strategy should pay attention to building this skill. Here are four ways we can help leaders build their intuitive intelligence muscle:

1.Listen to the inner voice

Leaders are busy people, often with busy minds juggling a multitude of priorities. It’s hard to hear the voice of intuition, informed by experience, in the midst of so much inner noise. Practising mindfulness has been shown to help leaders to tune into their instincts and make better decisions. Google introduced its mindfulness-based leadership program “Search Inside Yourself” in 2007, and it fast became its most popular in-house course. Participants report improved focus, clarity and quality of decisions.

Whether it’s a full-blown mindfulness program, or simply coaching leaders to pause and check in with their inner voice, building this practice could really pay off.

2. Check for bias

There is a flip side to instinctive decision making. It can become a shorthand for leaders to take a “my way or the highway” approach. This shuts down differing opinions, and can contribute to a culture of exclusion. Leaders who do this are rarely aware of their impact – they think they are doing what is expected of them – which is to take charge and be decisive.

To counter this, leadership development needs to invest in building self awareness, and a deep understanding of unconscious bias. Giving leaders the tools to encourage a culture of constructive challenge is an essential balance to “go with the gut” decision making. A powerful question that leaders can be encouraged to ask is “I’m leaning x way on this matter. What am I missing?”

One of the best senior leaders I ever had the pleasure to work with had a practice of pausing before any decision was made at a meeting. She would frame the decision to be made, and ask every single person in turn for their perspective. While she still took responsibility for the final decision, it was clear to the team that she valued their views. She also took the time to explain why she went a certain direction. Context enabled people to get on board, and to learn more about her decision-making process.

3. Practise, practise, practise

The flagship leadership program for high potential talent at a leading consumer brand always starts with a simulation. Participants are thrown in the deep end, almost literally, as they gather in a deliberately cold, dimly lit room. They are split into small teams and set a task: to save as many passengers as possible from the Titanic. Can they reverse the fortunes of this historic tragedy? A series of mission-critical decisions fly at them, thick and fast. There is little time to analyse or debate. Teams who trust one another, and their own instincts, always do the best.

Participants continued to experience similar scenarios throughout the program. Practising time bound, high stakes decisions in an environment of psychological safety enabled these future leaders to understand more about their decision making style, and fine-tune their instincts. The more we did, the more confident they felt in their own capabilities and the better the outcomes of their decisions.

Practice is powerful.

Encourage Self-Reflection

The military call it an After Action Review: the regular discipline of reviewing a decision, its outcomes and extracting lessons that can be applied for the future. In the design of any leadership program, I make sure there is as much time allocated for reflection as there is for each activity. This reflection time is initially guided with facilitation, but as the program progresses, there is more focus on self-reflection.

When coaching leaders, I encourage them to keep a decision diary. Reflecting on, and writing down, down answers to some simple questions helps to sharpen intuitive intelligence:

  • What was my initial instinct about this decision? How did I tune into this?
  • How did I check my instinct against different data and perspectives?
  • What did I eventually decide?
  • How do I feel about this decision now?
  • Next time I face a similar decision, what will I do the same? What will I do differently?

Widening this practice to review decisions as a team is a powerful way to foster a culture of openness and inclusion. It’s a win-win for leaders as they strengthen the decision-making capability of their entire team.

Making decisions goes with the territory of leadership. As learning and talent professionals, a key part of our job is to help leaders become more effective decision makers. We should be intentional about developing decision making as a skill, helping leaders learn when, and how, to pay attention their inner voice, while actively seeking input from the diverse perspectives around them.

Barack Obama explains this well: “I trusted my team. I listened to every voice in the room. I gave myself space to think. And then I made a decision that reflected my own personal sense of what was right”.

About the author: Fiona Jones is a global talent and learning professional who has strategically led the talent and learning functions of a number of mega brands and who has had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s renowned experts on leadership. As an Aziz client, we worked closely with Fiona during her time as Director of Learning and Capability Development at Vodafone. She recently left her role as VP Learning and Development for Nike in Portland, Oregon for new adventures back in the UK.

FURTHER READING:

  1. Questions leaders might use in validating key decisions they make

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 30 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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