Do Leaders Use Gut Instinct?

Posted on February 16, 2012 by TNS Consulting Team (via Scott Spayd)

In the realm of cognitive psychology, it is believed that when we make decisions it is best to use data as our guiding light. For example, a nurse should make a decision about a patient’s condition based on what research tells us. If research tells us that a certain blood pressure level indicates a problem, then the nurse should use this information to decide what to do to help the patient. Using this actuarial judgment method, the individual makes decisions based solely on empirically established relations between data and the outcome of interest.

When an individuals use actuarial judgment in decision-making, everyone will arrive at the same conclusion. If two clinical psychologists examine and analyze a patient that is experiencing fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, and thoughts of suicide, the two clinical psychologists using actuarial judgment should arrive at the same conclusion; the patient is suffering from depression. The psychologists have an understanding of what research tells us about people suffering from depression and what likely symptoms they will exhibit. There is no “I think this person has depression,” but rather, “This individual is exhibiting research based symptoms of depression, therefore this individual is depressed.”

Using the actuarial method can also pose a problem depending on the source of data. We have all heard someone say something such as, “I read in a magazine that…” It is not wise to trust everything we read in print. Magazines and newspapers can be subject to “research” or data that is not confirmed or has not been evaluated. Sticking to academic journals is a much more accurate resource.

Clinical judgment or using one’s gut instinct is another option in the decision-making process. Using the clinical judgment is not always a bad thing, but one must be aware of the possibility in making a judgment error. When we use clinical judgment, we combine our thoughts and feelings on situations and develop solutions. Without data, our judgments may in fact may not be good judgments. Although we may think we are making the right decision because our instincts tell us so, we may be making poor decisions.

Where does this leave leadership? In thinking about leadership and the judgments people use to make decisions, is there a perfect way to make decisions as a leader? Is it better to use actuarial or clinical judgments?

I believe leaders have to be able to use both clinical and actuarial judgments depending on the situation. Leaders are likely to experience situations that they may or may not be able to use data for. I always think about disasters that occur such as the Columbine high school shooting. Because high school shootings had never before been in the spotlight, very little research and prevention plans were conducted. I am sure that the principal of Columbine had to use his or her instinct in making decisions that day. The same could be said for an organization deciding whether or not an acquisition is in the best interest of the organization.

Is it possible that great leaders possess the ability the make great instinctual decisions? What are your thoughts?

TNS Consulting Team (via Scott Spayd)

About TNS Consulting Team (via Scott Spayd)

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Health and safety template February 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    To some degree I think all leaders use instinct. I think they have to as it is their duty to create and set a high example.

  2. mBraining January 6, 2013 at 2:21 am

    Hi, excellent post and great advice! Integrating head based cognitive knowledge with ‘Gut instinct’ is a key skill for leadership, and it’s not just a metaphor… gut instinct isn’t just coming from the head brain.

    Informed by recent Neuroscience findings about the discovery of functional and complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in the heart and gut, we’ve completed 2.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of these brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain and how this applies to leadership. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques in our recently published book ‘mBraining’. See for more info and a free whitepaper on the application to leadership.

    For example, one of the things we’ve uncovered in our work is that much of intuition is processed in both the heart and gut brains, and indeed the gut brain goes through a sleeping cycle each night that mimics and integrates with the equivalent of the head brain. When the head brain is dreaming during REM sleep, the gut brain is undergoing RGM (Rapid Gut Movement) sleep. The research indicates that it is during these periods, that intuitions are being communicated from the gut and heart, via the vagus channels, to the head. There are lots of distinctions and techniques that come out of these insights, and support completely what you’ve been writing and talking about in your post.

    I hope you find this backup and support to your own insights as fascinating as we do.

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