Decision making: When to lean on your gut feeling

An average adults makes about 35,000 conscious decisions each day.

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Over that past 11 years, this column has repeatedly discussed and warned business executives on the intricate dance between instinctive decision-making and deliberate strategic planning for important decisions. The discourse delves into our evolutionary roots as humans, whereby split-second decisions made in the wilderness of the Maasai Mara used to prove crucial for survival.

What to do when a lion pounces, an elephant charges, or a black mamba strikes used to comprise some of the most difficult decisions the human species used to make.

In contrast, a strategic alliance with one executive over another, which job to take to enhance long-term career marketability, and which Master’s degree course to take holds a more likely impact on the success of our lives in the 21st century.

Inasmuch, such complex corporate arenas of modern Kenya demand more calculated approaches not as suited to our gut feelings, gut urges, and gut decisions. Business Talk has explored how our primal instincts, honed for survival, are both a boon and a bane in the sophisticated decision-making required in today's business environments.

However, Laura Huang's research provides a different set of insights into this ongoing debate by highlighting the actual useful utility of gut instincts in decision-making, particularly under conditions of high uncertainty and intense ambiguity.

Her research suggests that in situations where further data gathering and analysis fail to clarify decisions, trusting one’s gut can actually lead to breakthroughs. It proves especially relevant when conventional information is either inadequate or overwhelmingly complex, making calculated decisions impractical.

So, instead of just lambasting one’s instinct in decision-making as subpar to calculated reasoning with evidence, the research extends our understanding of intuition in the professional sphere. We can categorise decisions into those that benefit from analytical approaches and those that require the elusive subconscious gut feel.

The findings can prove pivotal for leaders facing decisions clouded by unknowability, where despite available data, the scale of uncertainty renders traditional models insufficient. We therefore now understand the importance of discerning the type of decision at hand and the specific circumstances under which intuition might not only be necessary but advisable.

Executives can leverage the insights by identifying decision contexts within their operations that are fraught with uncertainties that data alone cannot resolve. Recognising the limitations of traditional analytics and fostering an environment that values intuitive insight as much as empirical analysis can empower leaders to make more informed decisions.

Such a balance between data-driven strategies and intuitive thinking stands as crucial in navigating complex and volatile business environments effectively.

Organisations can further the better decision-making agenda by embedding practices that cultivate a dual approach to decision-making. Training programmes designed to enhance employees' ability to identify when to rely on gut feelings and when to seek more data can create a more adaptive workforce.

Additionally, promoting a culture that encourages sharing and reflecting on both successful and unsuccessful instinct-driven decisions can demystify the process and bolster an organisation-wide understanding and appreciation of balanced decision-making.

The concept of gut decision-making need not be confined to the boardroom but rather can also be integrated into personal and family life. By openly discussing how decisions are made within the family, whether financial choices or daily logistics, members can develop a nuanced understanding of when to trust their instincts and when to gather more information.

Such discussions not only enhance individual decision-making skills but also foster a collective capacity to navigate uncertainties more effectively.

In short, while data-driven decision-making remains a cornerstone of modern business practices, looking at relevant research shows us that we can reconsider the strategic use of intuition and gut feelings in decisions. By integrating instinctual decision-making with analytical rigour, leaders can harness a fuller spectrum of cognitive resources to navigate the increasingly complex business landscape.

In so doing, this approach, not only enriches organisational culture but also aligns with our evolutionary heritage, adapting ancient instincts to contemporary challenges for more holistic and effective decision-making.

Have a management or leadership issue, question, or challenge? Reach out to Dr Scott through @ScottProfessor on X or email [email protected]

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